In my November Superintendent’s Corner, I shared my thoughts on having an “attitude of gratitude” as we approached Thanksgiving. This month, as we eagerly prepare to bid farewell to 2020, I want to share my reflections on the year, but I want to do so through that same lens of thankfulness and positivity.

There is no need to revisit the obstacles presented in the past year, because we all clearly remember how the school year ended and began again. Rather than recount unprecedented challenges, allow me to use this forum instead to highlight our staff, students and families’ unparalleled accomplishments in 2020.

In the spring, our dedicated teachers and staff completely shifted the instructional delivery of a school district serving over 12,000 students from in-person to distance learning in only two weeks. We had no control over the state’s response to the virus; however, we could choose how we in Highlands County continued to educate our children and recognize our graduates. Unable to hold traditional graduation ceremonies, our three high schools went above and beyond, each having their unique celebration of the Class of 2020. I am tremendously proud of the work ethic, character and compassion demonstrated by our School Board of Highlands County family.

Over the summer, our Management Information Systems (MIS) Department worked tirelessly to secure, prepare and rapidly distribute more technology than had ever before issued before throughout the district, putting technology into the hands of students across all grade levels. They also developed and delivered the professional development needed by those who would use that technology when school started.

We secured many supplies, materials and personal protective equipment on a scale we had never seen before and distributed those items to every site. Onsite facilities and custodial teams redesigned classroom and campus layouts and ensured that all areas were deep cleaned and sanitized. Highlands Virtual School, our virtual platform option for students in grades kindergarten through grade 12, ended the 2019-2020 school year with just under 80 students. They began the 2020-2021 school year with 1,823. Once again, our teachers and staff rose to the occasion, essentially building a school community complete with personnel and technology infrastructure in a matter of weeks.

Finally, as we worked to provide quality education to Highlands County students this fall, we were also mindful that there is more to the school experience than academic instruction alone. Our coaches, athletic directors, club sponsors, and school administrators worked on campuses and with a districtwide athletic task force to chart the safest way to allow students to participate in extra-curricular activities. Our children needed these activities, and our communities voiced their strong desire for us to provide this small piece of routine to students and their families.

While 2020 marks the end of the calendar year, our school year is just at the halfway point. In looking ahead to 2021, we anticipate a busy second semester. We know that many of our students and their families will have questions about spring activities and traditional end-of-year school-related events in the upcoming months. The district will learn more about state mandates, protocols and recommendations as we move through the early months of the new year. As we receive information and make decisions about school-related events, we will keep students, families and the community updated. We will also be undergoing our school district accreditation process in the coming month, and I will be sharing more information about that in future updates.

I appreciate the ongoing support from our community, and I wish you all a safe and joyous New Year.

Brenda Longshore is Highlands County Superintendent of Schools.