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Despite Pandemic, New NKY Superintendents Ready for the Year

Three Northern Kentucky school districts have new leaders to begin this unique year heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tony Watts at Newport Independent, Matthew Turner at Boone County, and Chad Molley at Erlanger-Elsmere are all overseeing a fresh school year begin virtually.

The River City News spoke with all three men ahead of the new year to see how they are adjusting in their new roles, as all three are new to the title of superintendent.

Watts is originally from Mississippi and arrived here to work for Frisch's where he spent five years. He later began his educational career teaching physical education at Covington's Sixth District School, a natural fit for the basketball standout.

He later worked at Holmes Middle School in Covington where he taught English to eighth graders.

Watts later became assistant principal at Conner High School in Boone County for five years and then became principal at Newport High School from 2011 to 2015. From there he went to Dayton Independent Schools where he worked as a educational recovery leader for the Kentucky Department of Education.

Immediately prior to returning to Newport, Watts was chief of schools for Fayette County in Lexington.

"It is a trial by fire, but the way I look at it, nobody has faced this before," Watts said. "We're all on the same playing field. No matter if you are a new superintendent or have been on the job for years, this is a new situation across the whole country, and we are all dealing with it together."

As a true optimist with strong faith, Watts said the push back of the starting date by the governor will give the district time to plan more.

He said one of the problems has been getting internet to families who did not have it before spring when the virus shut down in-person school. But the United Way has stepped up and partnered with internet companies and schools to assist. 

Watts said that about 50 families were able to receive reduced prices for internet access, and that will continue as long as it is needed.

Watts said even though the students have Macbooks and iPads , they won't work for lessons if there is no internet, so that is a communication channel which has to be open.

The plan that is in place for the district should work fine, he said, and any problems will be taken care of immediately.

Watts is confident that eventually everything will get back to normal, but it will take awhile. 

He is leaning on his fellow Northern Kentucky superintendents for support and advice.

"It's a good network," he said.

Matthew Turner was born in Louisville and raised in Danville.

He originally wanted to go into engineering but ended up as a math teacher, spending 29 years in education as a teacher and coach, and later as assistant principal at Williamstown High School, Lloyd Memorial High School, and Ryle High School.

Later, he became principal at Ryle, the region's largest school, and stayed there in that role for fourteen years.

Now, he leads the entire school district, the state's third-largest.

"This has been a time of crisis mode," Turner said. "We have all had to band together and work on this. Our first thing was that we have to be flexible and nimble about how to apply our plan."

Originally, the district planned to implement a color-coded system in which green meant all students would be back, yellow meant a hybrid of in-person and at-home learning, and red meant all virtual learning.

According to surveys received from families, 70 percent supported a return to in-person learning.

But Governor Andy Beshear later recommended that schools delay their openings to in-person learning until at least September 28.

Boone County, like Newport, also benefited from the United Way program offering internet access to families who needed it.

When in-person learning resumes, masks will mandatory, Turner said, though he knows students will want to take breaks from wearing them and that younger students will need to see their teachers' mouths when learning to read.

Turner said that while no one can predict what is next for the pandemic, he is fortunate to have inherited a solid team in Boone County.

"Our top priority is to serve the needs of the students and keep them and the staff safe," Turner said. "In-person learning is definitely the best and what is needed, but we have to stop the spread of this virus. A spike would definitely create a lot more problems."

For Chad Molley, assuming the top role at Erlanger-Elsmere is a natural fit. He has lived in the community his whole life, graduated from Lloyd High School, and his father also served as the district's superintendent.

"We're strong and we're adaptable and we support each other," said Molley. "I've seen our community's strength and solidarity on display as we began dealing with the implications of this pandemic, as I've seen many times before. And I see it today as we embark on a school year unlike any we've experienced."

Molley said that the district staff worked the entire summer preparing for the new school year, designing a virtual instruction program, securing devices for teachers and students, and restructuring staff to provide support and training. 

Due to that work, Molley said that he the district is ready for the new year.

"Nothing about this current situation is ideal," Molley said. "But even in these tough times, we are embracing new approaches, new ideas, and new opportunities for growth."

Written by Patricia A. Scheyer, RCN contributor

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