After weeks of struggling with the fallout of COVID-19 — working remotely, social distancing, helping neighbors when we can — no one in Tennessee needs to be told we’re living in “unprecedented times.”  

Teachers are coping with a digital environment most were not trained for, trying to maintain their focus on equity so that every child has a chance at a quality education, all while managing houses and budgets and families and health concerns. It’s more than anyone was prepared for. 

But if these times are unprecedented, so is the response of our teachers. No matter the crisis, educators do whatever they can to support students.  

I’m so inspired by the incredible work of educators across the South, even though our classrooms are empty. Teachers and school and district leaders are making student health the first priority, not only by social distancing and closing schools but also by making sure kids have enough to eat.

In Tennessee, when a Shelby County Schools employee tested positive for COVID-19, the YMCA of Memphis & the Mid-South jumped in to distribute meals to students citywide. South Carolina schools have delivered more than a million meals by school bus to families with children. Maryland has served nearly half a million, at more than 500 sites. School districts in Kentucky and North Carolina are even combining food service with Wi-Fi-capable buses, allowing students to access the internet while they’re eating. 

Florida has given districts the funding flexibility to help low-income students pay for computers and home-based internet services. The Florida Virtual School will provide digital learning capacity for an additional 400,000 students.  

Kentucky has started a task force to report on progress and to develop recommendations for supporting students, from pre-K to postsecondary. All around the region, school and college counselors are finding innovative ways to support students when they need it most, keeping them on track for what comes next in their lives.

K-12 teachers are coping with this upheaval in part because so many colleagues are sharing their expertise, time, online platforms, and coaching.  

The Georgia Department of Education is offering all states free access to two microcourses that cover digital learning and supporting students with special needs, plus a hundred more courses in grades 6 through 12.  

Leaders at colleges of education in Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Kentucky came together to share how they’re helping education majors who cannot complete their final semester of student teaching. The result is a set of short- and long-term recommendations on admission, practicum experiences, and student teaching. 

And Southern states are working together. State education leaders from Tennessee and across the region have been meeting virtually to exchange ideas and resources on the challenges of digital learning and supporting students online.  

In fact, the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) itself exists because in 1948, after a depression and a world war, 16 states came together to say we can do more together than separately. And as we face down another crisis, once again people in the South are coming together. 

SREB’s new regional K-12 and higher education recovery task forces are convening leaders from across our 16 states to determine the best ways to reopen schools and college campuses, how to support students and educators, the budget issues states are facing, challenges with broadband access and technology, and more. On-the-ground educators are serving on the K-12 task force, the first group to be appointed. Tennessee Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn has appointed herself to the K-12 task force (as many state chiefs have done), along with Eve Carney, the state’s chief districts and schools officer. We look forward to working with them. We’re also collaborating with leaders in higher education, including Mike Krause of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, as we form the task force for states’ higher education leaders. 

When we pool what we know, we can do so much more. In a crisis and on a regular basis, our educators and state leaders have always been ready to look across district and state lines for the best ideas and partners, the best path to a shining future for our students. All of us know that together we’re stronger, smarter, and better than before.   

Stephen L. Pruitt is president of the Southern Regional Education Board.