A Belief in What is Possible

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I continue to be impressed with faculty and staff members at all three of the schools within the Franklin West Supervisory Union.  Recently I participated in a virtual quarterly data meeting with Karen Lehning, MJ Mitiguy, Haley Christie, and Lauralee Wilson from GEMS to hear about the important work that is happening in the area of mathematics at the school.  Some key takeaways included that even in the midst of a pandemic, the instruction continues to move forward for all students.  Some of the positives that this impressive group of professional educators shared is that the instructional staff is laser focused on the most powerful instructional concepts and skills, and interventions are in place for individual students who are moving forward with core instruction by providing for individual learning needs.  

BFA Fairfax Instructional Coach, Juliet King’s One Word 

“Kim Desjardins, our wonderful Elementary Art Teacher, hosted a teacher art hour where a group of us Zoomed in together to create visuals of our one words.” — Juliet King”

Another benefit that I have heard from teachers across the district is that “virtual” parent communications are a new practice that is creating more family engagement in the educational process.  Lastly, this team from GEMS spoke favorably of the positive relationships that are being forged with the flexible pivoting that is occurring among In-Person Learning, the Hybrid Model, and Remote Learning.  I feel encouraged that parts of what we all are learning as educators during this challenging time may result in some innovative practices that we can hold onto for a bright tomorrow.

This holiday season I continue to be impressed by the resilience of our students, parents, faculty, and staff as we all move forward together, doing the best that we can to provide learning for all students.  Stay safe and stay well.

Enthusiastically Yours,

James Tager is the Superintendent at Franklin West Supervisory Union. He is a regular contributor to THE FWSU STORY. You can follow him on Twitter @jrtager

‘Tis the Season for Giving Thanks and Generosity

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Even during a pandemic we remember that giving is essential to our survival as a community.

Each year, we have a dedicated crew at BFA who help to organize a Thanksgiving Food Drive to provide meals to area families in need.  With all that has impacted our families during this pandemic, the needs this year were greater than ever.  However, our community continues to rise to the challenge.

Beginning in October, we asked each advisory throughout grades grades 5-8 at BFA to donate a particular ingredient to a bountiful Thanksgiving Meal.  This year, our students and families donated enough food to help feed 21 families for Thanksgiving! Our students absolutely knocked it out of the park this year. All of this would not have been possible without the powerhouse team of Ms. Black, Ms. Sheehan and Ms. Wehman, who organized, packaged and delivered meals (following safety protocols) on the Thursday and Friday prior to the holiday.  Thank you to our school nurses and our mental health team for keeping us safe, fed, and cared for amidst this whole pandemic.

Another annual tradition at BFA is The Mitten Tree, which hosts gift ideas for children in our community for the holidays. This year, the Mitten Tree will be virtual! Here is the link if you would like to participate. If you would have questions, please reach out to Amy Black, Michelle Sheehan or Nichole Wehman.

As a staff, we are also making monthly donations to support area families in need through a regular event we call $5 Dollar Fridays. Each week BFA staff are invited to make donations on Fridays to help provide holiday and break food to BFA Fairfax families. While this tradition had fallen by the wayside in previous years, it has been revived in order to give back during this time of need.

And, just for fun, the week prior to the Thanksgiving Holiday, we also hosted Spirit week for our students. For each of our cohorts in grades 5-8, we invited students to wear clothing representing their favorite sport or team on one day and pajamas on their second day. As you can see below, even in pajamas, we continue to prove that schools are among the safest places in our communities by keeping our distance, washing our hands, and wearing our masks while we have fun and learn. 

Take care, be well and stay healthy.

Justin Brown is the Principal at BFA Fairfax Middle School. He is a regular contributor to THE FWSU STORY. You can follow him on Twitter @jbrownenator.

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Continuing GEMS TV Express in a Hybrid Learning Environment

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GEMS TV started 3 years ago in 2017 as a a powerful communication tool to showcase and share the innovative work of GEMS students and Staff. You can click here to see the original blog post when GEMS TV was launched. In the following year, GEMS TV evolved into GEMS TV Express, a weekly newscast written and produced by middle school and elementary students working collaboratively to produce a high quality, informative, and entertaining news broadcast. You can click here to see the original blog post showcasing the launching of GEMS TV Express.

(photo was taken prior to 2020)

This year, GEMS TV production has been able to continue in a hybrid learning environment thanks to the hard work and planning of Mr. Hadd and Mr. Clow, educators in the innovation lab. Using digital learning tools, they have coordinated multiple small groups of students who attend school on different days to produce episodes.

Although most of the materials are designed in the actual classroom, GEMS TV students have also begun to do some production work at home remotely, another modification of learning in a hybrid environment. It is the hope that this will continue to improve as the classes adapt to learning remotely. Using Zoom, 8th grader Logan Grimm was able to remotely make a video that was then edited along with Mr. Hadd who was at GEMS. You can check out the blog post featuring that video here.

To ensure smart safe productions, GEMS TV has been modified this year. This includes filming episodes outdoors, so students do not have to wear masks during an episode. In addition, instead of creating weekly broadcasts, they are creating a series of specialized episodes, shared on a playlist to share with students. The smaller class sizes in a classroom setting have allowed 7th graders to take on more responsibilities than ever before; including editing under guided supervision and the expertise of Mr. Clow.

Check out this video one of the specialized episodes created by GEMS TV at the beginning of the school year as a resource used to help families tour the school in a virtual setting.

Angelique Fairbrother is the Digital Learning Coach at Franklin West Supervisory Union. She is a regular contributor to THE FWSU STORY. You can follow her on Twitter @FWSUtech

Creative Efforts Keep Students Intrigued at Georgia Middle School

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The Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, is attributed with the saying “change is the only constant in life.” While changes are almost always constant, particularly in this year, there are two other constants within our school: creativity and curiosity.

Health and safety guidelines and routines keep our students and staff safely spaced throughout their day at Georgia Middle School. Some may believe that this social distancing would prove to be prohibitive to our students being able to work and learn together. However, the combination of the creativity of our teachers, the caring of all our professional staff, and the ongoing curiosity of all our students has been a constant observation in our hallways, outside spaces, and in our classrooms. 

One of the areas that has been most greatly affected by the state safety guidelines is our music department. However, Mr. Gribnau has been both creative and flexible in providing ongoing music instruction to our students this fall. Our 5th and 6th grade students have been studying drumming and have become quite proficient in their efforts, as seen in the video below. Likewise, Mr. Gribnau fills much of his day in providing online instruction to small groups or individuals to support their growth in their instruments. 

Full video available here.

Our student’s curiosity and collective collaboration can be seen in many of our classrooms. A recent collaboration between our long-term substitute art teacher, Kait Jewett and math teacher, Mr. Coppenrath had students working to create collaborative art installation for our hallway blending the application of both their mathematical scale knowledge and artistic talents with a paint brush.

Above all, our students’ curiosity and exploration of new learning continues to be found. Our 7th grade students in Ms. Indiano’s science class recently were exploring cells under a microscope and using their iPads to capture the images that they were discovering.

Some students explored this with physical microscopes, while others were exploring the same ideas virtually through an interactive app on their iPads. The room was buzzing with excitement and discovery of the microscopic world and students were able to share their images and learn with each other from a safe distance.

Our school community definitely looks differently in our day to day operations than it has in the past. However, it is so fulfilling to see that our exceptional teachers and staff continue to be both caring and creative in finding ways to consistently spark and foster the curiosity of our students. Likewise, it is fulfilling to see the pride and excitement our students have for both the community in which they learn in as well as their new understandings of the world around them through their discovery and learning.

Julie Conrad is currently Principal of Georgia Middle School and is a regular contributor to THE FWSU STORY. You can follow her on Twitter @JulieConradVT

Jump Into Writing

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Co-Written by BFA Fairfax Instructional Coach, Juliet King

Last spring BFA Fairfax Elementary determined there was a need to create a writing block in our grades 3 and 4 schedules.  This determination was the result of many conversations about ways to extend our literacy block and increase opportunities to engage and provide additional writing instruction.  

In early August we were provided the opportunity to explore a new writing program called Jump Into Writing, with the support of literacy consultant and former Georgia Elementary/Middle School teacher, Lisa Driver.  Jump Into Writing is a program developed to support teachers who use the writing workshop model for writing instruction. The writing workshop model reflects current understandings in cognitive science about best practices for instruction: whole class focus lessons, individual and small group student application/practice, and individual/whole group reflection on learning.  

Jump Into Writing consists of teacher manuals, mentor texts, and additional online resources that support instruction in the three areas of writing identified by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS): narrative, informational, and opinion writing. This is a program that includes resources for grades 2-5. BFA has purchased this program and is currently using these resources for grades 3-5.  Each school in FWSU is using this same approach in these grade levels to build consistency across the district.

Our initial experience with Jump Into Writing has been positive. The Launching Unit for each grade level is designed to build student agency and engagement in writing.  This unit is focused on small moment stories. Students have been learning about the writing process, teacher/student conferences, and peer conferences.

Writing workshop anchor charts in one 3rd grade classroom.
Class brainstorm of ideas for Small Moment stories.

“The program is fun and I’m glad that teachers chose to do this writing program with us.  I think that the strategies are very helpful!  I have lots of ideas to write about!”

3rd grade student

Students have been learning different ways to brainstorm for writing ideas and how to expand those ideas into their personal narratives.  Our students are actively engaged in creating meaningful stories about their experiences. 

Creating maps of special places.
Left: Creating a Memory Chain. || Right: Creating a topic list for writing ideas.

“It has been really fun to see the kids excited to write!  The pre-writing activities have helped students identify ideas for writing.  Each student has at least one activity that has inspired them to write.”

4th grade teacher
Setting goals and making plans.

“It has been helpful to look at my goals and go back to meet my goals in my writing.”

“At first when I was writing, I thought that it was pretty perfect, but when I saw some goals I could have, I realized that I could write a more satisfying ending.  The writing program is helping me learn!”

3rd grade students

After the Launching Unit, students will engage in units such as Modern Fairy Tales (Narrative Writing Grade 3), Op-Ed (Opinion Writing Grade 4), and Question and Answer Books (Informational Writing Grade 3).

We are very excited and fortunate that we have been able to implement Jump Into Writing. A big thank you to Juliet King for her effective facilitation and support as we pilot the program. We appreciate our staff’s willingness to collaborate and to provide additional literacy experiences for our students.   

Thomas Walsh is currently the Principal of BFA Fairfax Elementary School and is a regular contributor to THE FWSU STORY.

Veterans Day

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The Georgia Elementary and Middle School would like to thank ALL Veterans!  

Any day is a good day to thank our Veterans, but today, November 11th, is especially important.  We thank them for their sacrifices and the privileges we have due to their service. To ALL who have served and continue to serve…Happy Veterans Day!

This video was created by GEMS TV EXPRESS students. They have shared past assemblies honoring our veterans as well as current acknowledgements from our students and staff. Unfortunately, we could not gather in person this year to honor you and share our appreciation, but know we recognize, respect, and appreciate you.

Steve Emery is the Elementary Principal of Georgia Elementary Middle School. He is a regular contributor to THE FWSU STORY. You can follow him @Emery_Gems.

Fletcher Students Learn About Fire Prevention with the Help of Community Partners

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October was National Fire Prevention Month and Fletcher Elementary teamed up with the Cambridge Fire Department and J&L Hardware to provide fun and engaging fire safety education to students, despite COVID-19 restrictions.

In lieu of the typical in-person presentation by firefighters, the Cambridge Fire Department purchased a fire-safety related book for every student at the school to take home and enjoy. The books addressed relevant fire prevention topics and included, The Berenstain Bears Visit the Firehouse, for younger students, and the book Wildfire, for older students. 

“Rather than just miss a year of important fire prevention education, we worked hard to find creative ways to still get the information out there in a safe and engaging way,” Cambridge Fire Department member Kristy Wyckoff said. “Through their books, both the younger and older students learned about the equipment firefighters use, how we do our jobs, and important fire prevention tips for staying safe at home.”

For the second consecutive year, the school also partnered with J&L Hardware to offer a fire safety challenge for students to complete at home. Families were asked to complete two of three fire prevention activities including creating and practicing a home fire escape plan, testing and changing batteries in their smoke detectors, and watching an informative fire safety rap video. Families that completed the challenge were entered into a drawing to receive one of six home fire extinguishers.

“It is essential that we support students in generalizing learning across settings,” Instructional Coach Denette Locke said. “By asking students to take what they learned in their fire safety books and in school discussions and apply that at home, it makes the learning relevant and real.”

With current COVID-19 restrictions around visitors to the school, the Cambridge Fire Department also created a video tour of the firehouse. The video walks viewers through everything from the dispatch system to the trucks and firefighters’ apparel. The video may be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fTmLjJ3aYsk&feature=youtu.be

Students also received fire prevention activity bags, including 9-1-1 decals, a fire safety activity book, three-dimensional fire truck building kit, and a safety pledge to sign with their families at home.

“COVID-19 has caused us to reinvent our teaching across all content areas,” Locke said. “It’s exciting to see our community partners like Cambridge Fire doing the same thing. Their creativity and willingness to be flexible means that our students can seamlessly continue their important learning about safety in ways that will make sense long after the health and safety restrictions have been lifted. That’s the silver lining. Good teaching remains good teaching despite anything else. We are very thankful to the Cambridge Fire Department for also embracing that approach this year.”

“I like to learn about fire safety because it helps keep us safe at home,” kindergartner Ryder Sheldon-Purinton said. “We learned how to make sure our smoke alarms work and how to get out of the house in case there is a fire. Being safe is a school rule and you should be safe at home, too.”

Christopher Dodge is the Principal of Fletcher Elementary School and is a regular contributor to THE FWSU STORY. You can follow him on Twitter @FletcherFalcon

The New Normal… ish

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Prologue
This year, teachers in FWSU are doing extraordinary things to move learning forward and keep their learners engaged in learning 5 days a week within a hybrid schedule.  The challenges are legion, but teachers face them with creativity, dedication, flexibility, stamina, and yes, humor.  Every one of our teachers has a story to tell about the teaching and learning experience during COVID-19 that is different from any other story they have told or will tell when we are finally post-pandemic. Emily Wills is one of those amazing teachers FWSU is so lucky to have. In this middle school hybrid model, Emily and her students have continued to work on finding the main idea and understanding the vocabulary in what they are reading (that never stops), giving speeches (students have a lot to say and an important voice), writing poems and letters (they are indeed writers), and keeping a Reader’s Notebook (organization matters more than ever). This is Emily’s story: funny, touching, inspiring, and real.

Linda Keating, FWSU Director of Curriculum

The New Normal… ish

School has been back in session for nearly two months at FWSU.  We’ve been building relationships and building plexiglass barriers.  Teaching and taking temperatures.  Supervising and sanitizing.  It has been wonderful to have students with us face-to-face again.  And yet, I have only seen my A and B students in-person sixteen days apiece so far this year.

Sixteen. Days. 

When I think of it that way, I am slightly less bothered by the amount of curriculum that has fallen to the wayside.  In a normal school year my seventh graders would have worked both an argument and an informative essay through the writing process.  They would have read a young adult novel together as a class and taken on nonfiction texts in small groups.  We would have learned how to speak and listen in a Socratic seminar.  

This year?  We’re two-thirds of the way through a book and we’ve painted rocks. 

So is this the new normal?

For this year, yes.  Yes it is.  

Our original plans as educators— what we would do in a normal year, in a normal classroom set-up, with a normal number of in-person school days per week, and normal staffing— must necessarily give way to this reality. 

This is so hard for us.  We are people of integrity, and we are worried not only about student regression due to remote learning last spring but also the impact of hybrid learning on our kids this fall.  Our two days face-to-face with kids each week are precious, but they feel like a Monday immediately followed by a Friday.  We welcome our students back from five days away only to send them off again the next day.  It is very difficult for us to figure out how to maximize our in-person time.  

Last week, inspired by our superintendent Jim Tager, I asked my students to choose a word that they felt could help them in school, at home, and in any hobbies or co-curriculars.  The students wrote and talked a little bit about their words.  Then I dedicated most of a class period for students to paint their words on a river rock.  

This was a hard decision for me.  Usually I wouldn’t think twice about making space in my English Language Arts class to give students a chance to be creative and have fun.  This year though, in the new normal, activities that involve stones and acrylic paints seem like a waste of time when there is so much vocabulary and grammar to cover.  

I don’t regret my decision, though.  The kids loved the chance to choose colors and plan their design.  They proudly showed each other their work.  One student yelled of his finished piece “Hey!  This isn’t bad!” in a tone of such genuine surprise that I cracked up.  It made it worth rolling around my cart full of brushes, pallets, paper towels, Sharpies, and paint like some kind of itinerant Michael’s employee… not to mention sanitizing all of these materials after each use.

As my kiddos posed for photos— in separate A and B day groupings, of course— I held up my cell phone and automatically told them to “Smile!”  They yelled back, “But Mrs. Wills!  You can’t see our faces!”  I laughed, and told them they were right, and took the pictures.

When I look at the photos now though, I can see that many of them are, in fact, smiling.  I can tell from their eyes, even though their mouths are covered with the mandatory masks.  

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Some things don’t change.  Our students are still our students, and we are still their teachers who love them and are doing our best.  Our best just looks different this year.  We must let some things go, adjust our expectations, and keep moving forward.  

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This isn’t really a new normal.  It’s normal…ish. 

And I encourage all of my amazing colleagues to be at peace with that.

Emily Wills is a 7th and 8th grade English Language Arts teacher at BFA Fairfax.  This is her 16th year in that role.  In her downtime, Emily enjoys walking, reading, and spending time with her husband and her dog. 

Changing Instructional Models Strategically and Methodically

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Safe, Smart Start

I’d like to take a moment to thank students, parents, faculty, and staff for your teamwork which has greatly contributed toward a safe, smart start to the school year. It is of paramount importance that we continue to follow the Safety and Health Guidelines that have been provided to us by the Vermont Agency of Education and the Vermont Department of Health. Please take time to review the updated, more stringent guidelines link for the most current safety information that goes into effect on November 16, 2020. In order to maintain a safe, smart start we will need to continue to work together as a community to adhere to the Safety and Health guidelines.

Return to Four Days of In-Person Instruction for Grades 5 and 6

Beginning on Monday, November 16th students in grades 5 and 6 will be welcomed back to BFA Fairfax for four days of in-person learning: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. Georgia students in grades 5 and 6 will return on Monday, November 30th for four days of in-person learning: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. In order to accommodate the return of Georgia students in these two grades, we will need to create additional space to maintain the Safety and Health Guidelines for a safe and healthy environment for students, faculty, and staff. Additionally, we will continue to monitor previously mentioned benchmarks prior to November 16th and November 30th before welcoming back fifth and sixth grade students for increased in-person instruction.

The Champlain Valley Regional Superintendents Association determined benchmarks that need to be in place for grades K-6 to increase in-person instruction are as follows:

● Sufficient staffing levels.

● No or low COVID activity in our community.

● Collaboration with the Department of Health, using algorithms to support response, actions, and decisions.

● Routines are efficient, assessed, and adjusted to meet the needs in compliance with the guidance from the Department of Health and the Agency of Education.

Just One Word

In the midst of a pandemic I believe it is important to take time to look at the bright spots that surround us and I encourage you to take the time to look up amidst all the unpredictability that is going on within our daily lives. One of our dedicated teachers,

Emily Wills encouraged her 7th grade students at BFA Fairfax to create decorative stonesas a reminder of “One Word” that will serve each individual student as an inspiration. Two words that students chose that seem very compelling for this time in history include “Social” and “Acceptance.” The one word that I rely on and have selected for the year 2020 is “Gratitude.” I make the choice daily whether going for a run or a hike to think about the things that I am grateful for.

Engaged Community Partners

Allison Mackenzie, one of our professional educators at Georgia Elementary & Middle School is hosting a Zoom meeting for her students to connect with Senator Dick Sears from Bennington, Vermont. Senator Sears worked with youths in a residential setting for many years as an educator himself. This virtual connection will provide students with an authentic learning opportunity with a respected state leader, to learn more about civic responsibility.

Focus on Writing

Within the shifting instructional models that we are currently experiencing, sometimes new relationships occur which benefit students in new ways. At Fletcher Elementary School the music teacher, guidance counselor, and art teacher have formed a unique partnership dedicating time to plan project based learning activities for students, while combining their unique skill sets. Jennifer McConnell, Lisa Coale, and MC Baker created a “Storm Walk” for students allowing for instruction across the academic curriculum, while strategically sharing the arts and infusing social emotional learning into the learning experience. This exercise in teamwork lends itself beautifully to individual student growth in written and verbal communication.

Enthusiastically Yours,

James Tager is the Superintendent at Franklin West Supervisory Union. He is a regular contributor to THE FWSU STORY. You can follow him on Twitter @jrtager

Keeping Healthy during a pandemic

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As a parent, when our children are ill we want to help them get better. We also wrestle with how much school or which activities they’ll miss. And, let’s be honest, it can also impact our own work, and that presents its own dilemmas. As we digest the central Vermont COVID outbreak and its subsequent impact on workplaces and schools, and as we enter into the winter months, we all need to be attentive to how our actions impact our communities.

A couple of weekends ago, my family and I were all looking forward to a Saturday morning of soccer.  It was to be our daughter’s first bus trip to an away game. She was excited for the game, and excited for the ride with her teammates. 

Unfortunately, when Saturday arrived, she woke up feeling crummy. Given the world that we are living in, it was easy to catastrophe and wonder if she had “it.” But, given the helpful guidelines that our school nurses had created, my wife and I were able to quickly remember that she didn’t have any of the big symptoms (in the red box), just some standard cold symptoms.

In our family, we come from a belief and culture of working through adversity and supporting our teammates.  We also want to support our kids in having new experiences and playing hard.  Yet, as members of the community we also believe in the need to look out for one another’s health and well-being. So, following the nurse’s guidelines and in the interest in keeping the team and those around us healthy we made the decision to notify the coach and keep our daughter quarantined and miss her first away game.

Honestly, it felt weird to stay home, when the urge was to show up and support the team. It challenged our belief in the need to send our daughter to play, or even for her to sit on the sidelines and cheer for her teammates. But, in this world that we find ourselves living in, many of our habits and beliefs seem to be challenged on a daily basis.

Then came the school week. With precious few days of in-person instruction, we were faced with another dilemma – keep her home and miss her few in-person school days?  Perhaps it was paranoia, but when I called the doctor I noticed, and mentioned, that I was also starting to feel a sore throat coming on.  Sure enough, our doctor recommended that we quarantine until we could get a COVID test, which was arranged for later that afternoon.  We would also be required to quarantine until the results were available.

So here we were, my daughter missing one of the few days of in-person instruction she had available to her, and personally being faced with the prospect of not being in the school. While still needing to do the essential work of trying to keep school running smoothly and plan for opening it up further, this was not an easy place to be. 

Now, granted, we are fortunate to have health insurance and the ability to work remotely.  But as someone who deeply values working hard but also doing what is right for our community, in this case doing the right thing felt somewhat counter-intuitive.  Instead of powering through, we needed to hunker down.  As I reflect back on the moment where I considered toughing it out, Dr. Levine’s comment during this week’s press conference about certain decisions during this pandemic seems to resonate: “what we can do, is not always what we should do.”

I am happy to report that our test results were negative and it was just a seasonal cold.  We did remain in Quarantine as recommended and our girls are back to practicing for their final games of the season. 

It seems as if we are faced with tough decisions about things that we used to consider day-to-day things.  Yet, in this new normal, just taking that time to pause, reflect on what is most important and what we are really after in the big picture might just help us with moments where we’d prefer to just do what we have always done.  Perhaps most importantly, please know that all of us in your schools will continue to support you and your kiddos as we all work together to keep one another healthy so we can all make it through this.

Take care, be well and stay healthy.

Justin Brown is the Principal at BFA Fairfax Middle School. He is a regular contributor to THE FWSU STORY. You can follow him on Twitter @jbrownenator.