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COVID-19 on the heels of Hurricane Florence

June 2020

The Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Southeast is featuring a blog series, Voices from the Field, to highlight first-hand experiences from educators working at the school- and district-level across the REL Southeast region. In this blog post, Beth L. Folger, Ed. D., Deputy Superintendent of Onslow County Schools in eastern North Carolina, shares her district's experience in coping with the COVID-19 crisis shortly after recovering from a major hurricane.

Growing up in eastern North Carolina meant working in the tobacco fields, eating ripe watermelons fresh from the garden, and battening down the hatches during hurricane season. Every decade or two, one would roll in close enough to cause some trouble, but most times the bark was worse than the bite. Unfortunately, in September 2018, Hurricane Florence raged onto the North Carolina coast and set up camp in Onslow County for a while. Torrential rain and punishing winds, followed by no electricity and hot, humid mold-producing air punched our community and our schools in the gut. Trees lay scattered, roofs wound back like the top of a sardine can or blown aside like a garbage can lid, and families were stranded – might as well have been on an island. Roads were flooded, stores closed, and cell towers out of order like an old pay phone by the road. Hope came from an igloo cooler, neighbors helping each other, and gobbling all the food in the fridge before it went bad. Schools, the backbone of our community, couldn't offer much help. A few stayed open for shelters, but many others were wounded in the battle – flooded, roofless, moldy, and sopping-wet innards.

Onslow County, NC

But in eastern North Carolina, we are driven by a strong sense of faith, family, and community, which requires us to pick up our chins and put the pieces back together. With lots of outreach, innovative thinking, advocacy, and working together, our community began to reassemble, although it would never be the same again. Families moved away, homes were torn down, churches propped up more charities and the hubs of our community – our schools finally reopened to students after being closed for 36 forever long student days.

Just as normalcy somewhat returned by the end of the 2018/19 school year and the beginning of the 2019/20 year, little did we know that a different kind of storm was going to knock us off our feet again. Our teachers, out of breath from teaching a year's worth of curriculum in three fourths of a year due to the hurricane (and being held to the same state accountability standards as districts that had missed no days) were enjoying a "normal" year of teaching and learning until "it" hit. When it hit, it felt like torrential rain, punishing winds, and a punch in the gut all over again. The lyrics to country singer Luke Combs' song, Hurricane, sums it up better than a TI-84 calculator;

The moon went hiding
Stars quit shining
Rain was dropping
Thunder 'n lightning
You wrecked my whole world when you came
And hit me like a hurricane
You hit me like a hurricane

I find it ironic that a virus acquired the power of a hurricane and forced a nation, a state, a community, and once again, our school district to its knees. COVID-19 halted our buses, trapped our students at home, shut down our stores, exhausted our wi-fi capacity, crafted hardships for our children, stole jobs and paychecks, and chased families out of town – very much like Hurricane Florence. However, this time was different. As a district, we found ourselves more agile, more confident, more responsive, and more communicative. Why? How? In hindsight, there are lessons we learned from the Hurricane Florence crisis that seem to be universal to all crises. These lessons learned created a road map of sorts, or a compass to point us in the right direction. Little did we know that Hurricane Florence had left some helpful tidbits on her way out of town and that these tidbits would be building blocks for the next crisis – COVID-19.


  1. Know your community's values and ensure that the school district's responses are representative of those values. When the hurricane hit, it was more important that the school district's actions showed that we cared about our families than we cared about test scores and missed instructional time. First, we helped families and employees repair their homes or find a place to live, we collected and distributed food, clothing, and cleaning supplies, and we checked on our students to make sure everyone was accounted for. Only after caring for people were we able to turn to instruction and create pop-up learning sessions in the community at churches, recreation centers, businesses, etc. During COVID-19 and remote learning, we immediately added social emotional learning lessons and made online guidance counseling available. Teachers made personal contact weekly with each family. We made sure to take care of the students' hierarchy of needs to help clear a path for teaching and learning.

    • This toolkit provides resources for engaging families and the community as partners in education.
    • This infographic provides strategies for schools to help integrate a focus on equity into social and emotional learning..

  2. Don't wait until a crisis to create relationships with your local and state policymakers and influencers. During the hurricane recovery and during the pandemic, forged relationships with county commissioners, city and county managers, state senators and representatives, and department of education administrators have all led to additional funding, policy changes that favored our requests, influence on legislation changes and future legislation. Most frequently, it gave us a voice at the table and it expedited communication, often giving us a head start on planning before information was shared publicly.
  3. Designate a war room, recognize the general, and clearly define each team member's role. The war room is where the general's team, or superintendent's cabinet, meets frequently to analyze the situation, discuss strategy, draw up a plan, and prepare for implementation and communication. During the hurricane, when cell phones and land lines weren't viable, the team knew to meet in the war room. Charts and action plans with highlighted responsibilities and handwritten timelines lined the walls of the room. We all knew what was happening, who was responsible, and when it should occur. So, it is no surprise that during the pandemic, we return to the war room, readying ourselves for a rapidly changing situation. Quickly the charts emerge, the tasks are assigned, and the decisions formed. We advise the General, who has final say, and we carry out our roles, knowing that during crises, shortage of time forces decisions to be made with less scrutiny and collaboration. Therefore, we move as a team, a shared voice, a single force.
  4. In the absence of information or action, someone else will fill the void. You cannot over communicate to internal or external stakeholders. If you don't tell your story someone else will and you might not like the way they tell it. Get out in front with your key messages and then keep everyone informed. Give updates frequently, even if the only thing you share is when the next update will be shared. Spread hope and share a pathway back to normalcy.
  5. Curriculum and instructional resources matter. When teachers have access to adequate training and aligned resources and curriculum, they are better equipped to deliver high-quality instruction in the classroom, at community pop-up sessions, or remotely. Instead of spending valuable time searching online or on Pinterest for lessons, teachers are able to use the district-provided, evidence-based curriculum and resources and concentrate their focus on student learning outcomes and the social-emotional health of our students.
  6. Crises eat equity for dinner. Natural disasters, pandemics, wars, recessions – who do they impact the most? They impact our most vulnerable populations, our most disadvantaged families, and our most at-risk students. During a crisis, spend time thinking about how inequities are exacerbated and how as an educational leader you will use resources to help bridge a gap that has just widened. Collaborate on a plan, allocate resources, secure support, and make it happen. No excuses – I don't care if it is a hurricane or a pandemic!

Beth L. Folger, Ed. D., has been in education for 29 years as a classroom teacher, professional development coach, principal, chief academic officer, and deputy superintendent. In her role as deputy superintendent, Dr. Folger has focused on advocacy for students, families, and teachers.