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Meet the people who made school possible in this tough pandemic year

The Knoxville News-Sentinel logoThe Knoxville News-Sentinel 12/30/2020 Isabel Lohman, Knoxville News Sentinel
a person sitting in a room: Michelle Harb is a school nurse at Gap Creek Elementary, poses for a photo in her office in East Knox County, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. A large part of her job this year has been contact tracing coronavirus cases. © Caitie McMekin/News Sentinel Michelle Harb is a school nurse at Gap Creek Elementary, poses for a photo in her office in East Knox County, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. A large part of her job this year has been contact tracing coronavirus cases.

The word "hero" has been used a lot in the past year, and educators certainly qualify. 

Knox County Schools educators and staffers are stepping up to the challenge to make sure young people feel supported.

Knox News talked with a few to hear what their first semester has been like under incredibly challenging pandemic circumstances. 

Michelle Harb, school nurse at Gap Creek Elementary

Michelle Harb checks the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's website at least once a day to keep up with the latest guidance on isolations and quarantines.

"So that takes away from a lot because you're mentally exhausted from that. You just can't focus on everything else you need to focus on."

Harb said the biggest challenge of the year has been everything around COVID-19 but the biggest reward has been getting to know the students better. 

a woman holding a sign: Michelle Harb is a school nurse at Gap Creek Elementary, poses for a photo in her office in East Knox County, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. A large part of her job this year has been contact tracing coronavirus cases. © Caitie McMekin/News Sentinel Michelle Harb is a school nurse at Gap Creek Elementary, poses for a photo in her office in East Knox County, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. A large part of her job this year has been contact tracing coronavirus cases.

She said she has to be ready for anything, whether that's a student with seizures or a students who need an inhaler after gym class. Harb also deals with paperwork related to immunizations, physical exams and allergies.

"Since we're such a small school, kids can just come in here and any time and just talk if they're not feeling good, or anything like that, they know I always have an open door policy. So they know they can just come in here and sit down, tell me how they're feeling. If they're crying, if they're sick, they know that I'm actually going to take care of them and not just send them home, waiting around. And so it's just the fact that I'm actually just been able to be there for them." 

David Scarbrough, bus driver

David Scarbrough never thought he would be driving a school bus. But after his neighbor told him Jefferson County Schools was hiring drivers, he decided to give it a try.

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He is now in his second year of driving Knox County students and knows he can make a positive impact.

"Honestly, it was because I felt like I made a difference in the kids' lives," Scarbrough said. "Because I know when I was a kid, I did like my bus drivers, but I didn't talk to them very often. And, my kids seemed to talk to me and seem to like me, and so I wanted them to know, that if they ever had any problems, that I would be there."

He starts his route around 6:40 a.m. He wants families to know that there's a lot of things going on — he has to watch the road and keep an eye out on student's behavior. He'd like people to stop running stop signs and using cell phones while driving.  

Scarbrough said he models good mask-wearing behavior so he no longer drinks his coffee on the bus. He said the most of his students do "very well" with mask-wearing but there are a few kids he has to remind.

a man sitting in front of a window: David Scarbrough, a bus driver from Lynch Bus Lines for Knox County Schools, poses for a photo inside his bus in Knoxville, Tenn. on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. © Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel David Scarbrough, a bus driver from Lynch Bus Lines for Knox County Schools, poses for a photo inside his bus in Knoxville, Tenn. on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020.

"As a bus driver, I'll admit there are some things that I'm lenient on. And there are some things that I'm a stickler for. And that's something that, (I) have been a stickler (on), because I know, I understand how quick it spreads. And I understand that you can be asymptomatic and spread it and I've had some of my kids, when I get on to them, they're like, 'We don't have COVID.' I'm like, 'I don't care what you got, I asked you to put your mask on.'"

While Scarbrough said he knows the risks of COVID-19, he said he was reassured when he learned buses would be disinfected and masks would be required. He acknowledged the challenges with increasing cases in the community. 

"The rewarding part is that I've been able to be a part of getting them back to school."

Amanda Parker, school liaison at Bridge Refugee Services 

Clothing norms, an A through F grading system and behavior expectations might all come second nature to people who grew up in America. But Amanda Parker wants to make sure refugee families know the ins and outs of how the Knox County and American school system works in general. 

a person wearing a dress: Amanda Parker is photographed outside of Bridge Refugee Services in Knoxville on Monday, December 14, 2020. © Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel Amanda Parker is photographed outside of Bridge Refugee Services in Knoxville on Monday, December 14, 2020.

Her job includes having virtual calls with families where she explains how the district works, and how American schools work in general. She partners with the district's Welcome Center to get children enrolled and connected with Cherokee Health Systems for immunizations.

COVID-19 means she's added a section about virtual learning to her orientation as well. 

"I'm trying to help meet more basic needs than normal, even," Parker said. "So maybe families who have been here a year or something but they still might have some issues with food security, or technology access or internet access. So I'm kind of doing even more of those things for more people than I would say is typical for a non-COVID situation." 

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Parker said the pandemic brings its own challenges. She's grateful for WhatsApp and Zoom to meet families and other community partners. But said it's possible the isolation for new people to Knoxville is even worse. 

"One thing is just the nature of COVID. And the response that we need to have in being socially isolated and safe in our own homes. It creates a barrier that I think is hard for us as Americans, but maybe even harder for those who come from cultures that are kind of used to being in each other's houses, and (have) just a lot of community interaction. So that's felt like a barrier to have to, kind of, it feels like their isolation when they come here is kind of kicked up a notch. So it's been a challenge for me to know how to connect with families."

"It's easy to kind of forget a lot of the basic things that they are working on when they get here," Parker said.

Parker said she's an advocate for more interpretation services from schools to health care and beyond. Some of the families she works with aren't literate in their own language so voice messages are paramount. She said students tend to learn English at a faster pace compared to their parents, who might also be busy with their own work. She wants to continue to brainstorm with the district on ways to better engage the parents of immigrant families.

She said there are more than 30 district schools with refugee families that Bridge supports. 

"There's a lot to learn, and, and I really applaud their determination to keep learning and getting through day by day, because I think I would be totally overwhelmed."

Rachel Ross, licensed clinical social worker and registered play therapist supervisor and program coordinator for Vine School Health Center

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Rachel Ross works with children and understands them through the way they process their feelings.

"We, as adults, often like for them to talk about how they are feeling. And children don't do that. They use toys, they interact with the world and play therapists are able to see that and understand and communicate through their language versus our language." 

Ross said she's one of seven play therapists in Knox County. She sees about eight to 10 families in-person or virtually a day.

The clinic doesn't just serve Vine Middle 

Dogwood Elementary, East Knox Elementary and Fulton High School have in-person services, while Halls Middle, Vine Middle and South-Doyle High do virtual sessions.

a woman in a striped shirt and smiling at the camera: Rachel Ross, social worker at Vine School Health Center, poses for a photo in one of the counseling rooms at the center in East Knoxville, Tenn. on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. © Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel Rachel Ross, social worker at Vine School Health Center, poses for a photo in one of the counseling rooms at the center in East Knoxville, Tenn. on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020.

Ross said one positive is that the clinic is able to provide telehealth services to families who otherwise might not be able to get mental health services.

Some families don't have the gas money or reliable transportation to send their child to a doctor once a week. Telehealth reduces that "huge barrier."

Ross said there have been several challenges for the families the clinic serves but the one thing that sticks out is that people are dealing with the uncertainty of the day to day — from a school closure to a quarantine to a work schedule or managing depression symptoms while wearing a mask all day.

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On the other hand, Ross said two wins are that families are willing to ask for help, meaning the relationships the clinic fostered over the years have stood the test of time. Additionally, seeing the resilience of families has been rewarding.

She said school administrators are working extremely hard to make things manageable for families.

"And, man, they are really trying to make it workable for so many families and I don't think they always get that that credit because sometimes they make decisions that aren't very well-liked, like digital days."

The school health clinic is open even on days when the school or district is "red," but there is a two-week closure until Jan. 4. During that time, there is an on-call number for COVID-19 concerns: 865-296-2825. For more information, visit vineschoolhealthcenter.org.

Isabel Lohman reports on children's education, health, welfare and opportunities in East Tennessee

Twitter | Email | 865-207-9279 (cell)

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This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Meet the people who made school possible in this tough pandemic year

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