For Stacy Royster, the Opelika City Schools system is like family.
Royster, the school system’s technology director, has been with the district for 20 years, building countless friendships among the staff and students along the way. She especially shows out during Opelika’s football season, as her social media is always packed with updates and highlights of the Bulldogs from the opening kick of the season to the final whistle later that fall.
Royster takes her job to heart, as shown by her work since the coronavirus pandemic began.
Royster helped lead school system’s response when it was clear that a learning-from-home curriculum for students was imminent. She said there were very few bumps along the way thanks to teamwork, despite the tremendous challenge of connecting remotely with 4,000 students.
“I won’t deny it’s been a little crazy these last two months simply because it’s getting everybody out of their norm. Thankfully we’re a very technology-friendly district,” said Royster, who has been the district’s technology director since 2013. “It’s been a very well-oiled machine, and I’m thankful for that and the team. If that had not been in place, there is no way I would have survived this if I’m being honest. There’s no way that one person can do it.
“You can’t be a one-person anything in this situation. I’m very thankful for the team of curriculum, tech and teachers all working together in different capacities to pull this off.”
Royster credited the work of superintendent Mark Neighbors, who had the foresight to bring the system’s administrative team together before Opelika’s spring break began on March 16 to start planning for a stay-at-home situation. She said the staff worked remotely during the break on how to handle such a scenario, work that paid off when it was apparent returning to campus would not be an option.
The system brought in their instructional coaches to identify critical content areas for students and the best ways to deliver said content. They made sure all the teachers were using the same methods as to avoid unnecessary confusion. The staff also set up distribution points to give Chromebooks to the students who needed them.
Opelika is considered a one-to-one school district, which means they have enough devices available to provide one for every student in the system. Royster estimated there were about 2,000 Chromebooks in the city. About 15 to 20 percent of the students do not have internet access at home, and the system worked directly with those families to find solutions.
There was no shortage of people involved to make sure everything went off as smoothly as possible.
“I had a small army under me of teachers and staff who helped assist with (the distribution process) and get it out to every kid,” Royster said. “All of our teachers personally called every family to say, ‘Do you need a device? Do you need help getting internet access in your home?’ Point Broadband has been great at helping with the families who needed the internet access.
“Once curriculum kind of put their plan together, I then just started working on the backside of it by setting a website up where all our lessons get published to.”
Royster said major issues have been few and far between, such as parents who underestimated their children’s ability to do tasks such as logging into an account. The school system has set up break-fix hours in case any of the students have problems with the Chromebooks, but Royster said they’ve only had to swap out two devices thus far.
School ends this week. One of the main issues to tackle now is retrieving students’ items from the buildings, which Royster said they’ll likely have to play by ear according to the state’s recommendations.
The district must also begin planning for activities involving the start of school in the fall, such as whether or not it will have its traditional open houses before classes begin.
“There’s a part of school that’s a business side that people forget about. There’s data that has to be submitted, final grades have to be approved, reports have to be submitted to the state department, things such as that,” Royster said. “We’re having to think about the what-if game. We always hate playing the what-if game — it’s kind of like with snow days of do we close or do we not. We’re kind of doing the same thing here with, ‘Do we plan the traditional everything is normal, or do we also have a plan B that’s a hybrid or a plan C of a total, no-contact kind of thing.’ It’s looking in that direction.”
Although the last few months have been stressful at times for Royster, she remains grateful to her role in the process. Any hard times along the way have been overshadowed by the happy ones, like when a parent sends her a photo of a student hard at work or a note thanking her for her help.
Royster has been part of the Opelika family for two decades now, and she credited the system’s family-like structure in getting through this situation. She has tech director friends in school systems across the world who don’t sound as lucky, which makes her doubly grateful to be where she is.
“This is the only place that I’ve worked as an educator. I have been given job opportunities with other districts, but I would not leave Opelika. It is a family. That is the one thing that has kept me here. We do work as a family unit,” Royster said. “I can’t say enough about that because if that hadn’t been in place, this would have been extremely stressful and miserable. I am thankful every day for the team that I have — from the instructional coaches to the teachers to the parents. We know this is a difficult situation, but nobody gets ill about it. If something doesn’t work in the moment, we breathe and we work together to figure out how to get around it or get a solution that fits the students’ needs at that point in time.
“Knock on wood, but I’m blessed with how smoothly this has run. I think it’s because of the team effort and that little army of teachers and instructional coaches. We dug in there. Everybody kind of took a role. We said, ‘This is what has to be done to make it happen,’ and we made it happen.”