- Wicomico County Public Schools
Board and Its New Leadership Are Meeting Ongoing Pandemic-Era Challenges
Wicomico County Public Schools has entered a new phase of pandemic-era education, with schools able to serve more students in person each school day as of March 29 thanks to revised CDC guidance on distancing. Supporting and advising Superintendent of Schools Dr. Donna Hanlin in a governance role every step of the way is the Wicomico County Board of Education, with new leadership as of a few months ago but the same unwavering commitment to doing what is best for students.
In the Board of Education’s annual reorganization in December, Board members elected N. Eugene “Gene” Malone Jr. as the Board Chair and Michael G. Murray as the Board Vice Chair. Mr. Malone and Mr. Murray are both graduates of Wicomico High School. With them on the Board of Education are Board members Donald L. Fitzgerald, Allen C. Brown Sr., John Palmer, Tonya Laird Lewis and Ann B. Suthowski.
“I have always believed it is important to give back to the community that has been my home all my life. My entire family, from my grandparents through to my grandchildren, are products of Wicomico County Public Schools. What our family has achieved started with our education in this school system,” said Malone, appointed by the Governor to the Board in 2016 and elected to a four-year term in 2018. He previously served as the Board’s Vice Chair and Acting Chair when then Chair Mr. Fitzgerald was out for health reasons. “As Board Chair, I now have extra responsibility to work with my Board colleagues to make a difference in the school system wherever we can. All seven Board members and the Superintendent are leaders in this effort, and we work as a team to make that difference every day.”
Mr. Murray has a similar story of how education has been an integral part of his life. “I was born and raised here, and I’m a product of the Wicomico County Public School System. My mother was a teacher here for almost 40 years, and my grandmother was a public school teacher in Sussex County. I grew up in a family of educators and I believe in public education,” said Mr. Murray. He had a 35-year career in Delaware schools as a teacher, department head, vice principal and principal, then spent several years as a substitute teacher for Wicomico Schools. He was appointed to the Board by the County Council in 2017 and elected to a four-year term in 2018. “I chose public education as my career and have enjoyed working in it, and now I enjoy serving as a Board member for students, faculty, staff, parents and the community. I believe in teamwork. Everyone working together as a team certainly makes a difference in a child’s life.”
Both of them have favorite times in the school year, from ordinary everyday classroom activities to special events like awards nights. For Mr. Murray, the first day of school is very special. “From the minute they get off the buses or out of the car and go into the school and meet their teachers and go through the routine of their day. That experience is priceless, and it is the foundation for success for the entire school year.” Mr. Malone said he always looks forward to the Teacher of the Year Banquet (not held in 2020, happening on a smaller scale on May 6, 2021): “Teachers work very hard, and many times are underappreciated. When we announce the Teacher of the Year, it’s so heartwarming to witness how much they appreciate this recognition. This year they certainly deserve all of the appreciation and recognition we can give them for the job they are doing to make education happen every day for their students despite all the challenges.”
This pandemic year has certainly provided challenges for everyone. “It’s the greatest challenge the whole world has faced in most people’s lifetimes,” Mr. Murray said. “None of us ever expected it, but the entire Board team and everyone at the Central Office and in the schools has worked tirelessly and innovatively every day to continue the learning for the students and work toward getting them back into the classroom as soon as possible.”
After being fully closed for two weeks in March 2020, the school system rapidly shifted to remote learning for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year and then virtual learning for the start of the 2020-2021 school year, with laptops available for all students and WiFi hotspots provided for families needing help with connectivity. Schools have since reopened to hybrid in-person learning for all grade levels, first two days a week and soon four days a week, while many students continue to learn virtually.
“Our Board team has worked tirelessly in collaboration with Dr. Hanlin to provide the best possible education that we can during this difficult time,” said Mr. Malone. “I know we have not been able to make everyone happy with our plans, but please know that we have all spent many hours agonizing over what to do. We prioritized the health and safety or our students and staff first and foremost with every decision.”
At the end of each Board meeting, when Board members have the opportunity to give individual reports, Mr. Malone almost always shares a quote that has inspired him and might be meaningful to others. As he thinks about the role of the school board in this most difficult of times, and his own responsibilities both as a Board member and as a grandfather who supported students during virtual learning, he thinks of this quote from the great N.C. State University basketball coach Jim Valvano. His team won a national championship in 1983 even though experts had predicted the team would lose. Valvano said: “In every single day, in every walk of life, ordinary people do extraordinary things.”
“I believe that best describes what our WCPS team does each and every day – extraordinary things,” Mr. Malone said.
Mr. Murray also shared a quote, from Nelson Mandela’s 2002 address to the United Nations Special Session for Children: “History will judge us by the difference we make in the everyday lives of children.” The Board of Education and its leaders, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Donna Hanlin and her team, and everyone who is part of the public education team in Wicomico County is working to make that difference every day.