Sep. 26—To be the Dale Cook Support Educator of the Year for Dalton Public Schools would be an honor for any employee, but the award is even more special to Bliss Jones considering her connections to the person for whom the award is named and her roots in the school system.
Cook was a media specialist at Dalton High School in the 1990s when Jones was a student, and she was "super kind, compassionate and dedicated to her students," Jones said. And the inaugural winner of the award, Debra Holbrook, head of the custodial and maintenance department at Dalton High, "is a co-worker of mine" held in equally high esteem.
"To get an award named after (Cook), and to be in the company of (Holbrook), is super gratifying," Jones said. "It's very much an honor."
Add to that the fact she's a product of Dalton Public Schools and a 1993 graduate of Dalton High and the award takes on even more significance, she said.
"I walk the halls here, and I get flashbacks to years ago."
This award recognizes staff members who operate in behind-the-scenes roles that help the school system run smoothly, according to Dalton Public Schools. A support staff member is defined as a person in a non-certificated, non-classroom position at either the school or system level.
"Bliss is so deserving of this recognition," said Stephanie Hungerpiller, Dalton High's principal. "We are blessed that Bliss is a part of the Dalton High School staff and are so thankful for her."
Jones also received the Dalton Public Schools Classified Employee of the Year Award.
Jones — who has a daughter, Parker, 17, who is at Dalton High, and a son, Roman, 11, who attends the new Hammond Creek Middle School, with her husband, Steven — was commended for her efforts as Dalton Public Schools' COVID-19 coordinator, which includes handling contact tracing; providing COVID-19 information to students, staff and families; and acting as a liaison between Dalton Public Schools and the North Georgia Health District.
Dalton Public Schools allowed any student to opt for complete virtual learning for 2020-21, "a wonderful option, because in-person learning was not the best (choice) for every student and family," but for those who did want in-person education, "we wanted to make it as safe as possible, and Dalton Public Schools did a really good job," Jones said. "Our nurses were amazing, too, in getting all of that information — which changed (often) — out there" to students and families.
While the number of COVID-19 cases among Dalton Public Schools' students and staff, as well as the number of quarantines due to possible exposure to COVID-19, saw a "sharp, remarkable decline" this spring, last winter "was hard" due to a high number of COVID-19 cases and possible exposures, Jones said.
"It was iffy, but I'm really thankful we were able to continue school, (because) you have to look at it holistically, all the benefits of being in school (versus) the risks of COVID-19."
Part of the improved outlook was due to the availability of COVID-19 vaccines to staff, then to students, and Dalton High even hosted several vaccination clinics, she said.
"Having that here, where (people) are comfortable, I think helped more people get vaccinated, because it was super easy and convenient."
"COVID-19 is not going away, and we'll have cases here and there we'll need to respond to," she said. She also believes it's part of her position to "help people find the right information" to make good health decisions.
Jones was vaccinated against COVID-19 after "I did the research myself" and was satisfied about the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, she said.
"People want good information before they put something in their body."
Jones received four nominations for the Dale Cook award, and nominees were judged based on their interactions with co-workers, their impact on the school system, their work ethic and their overall attitude, according to Dalton Public Schools. Winners receive a commemorative plaque and a check for $500.
Jones "worked tirelessly" this past year to keep students and staff of Dalton Public Schools "safe," often working nights and weekends to contact trace or talk to parents and students about possible exposure, Hungerpiller said.
"She was the bearer of bad news many times when a student or staff member had to be quarantined, but she always showed compassion and kindness to everyone."
The purpose of contact tracing is to "break the chain of transmission," Jones said. That begins with a case interview, talking to the student and/or his or her parents if the student is too young or otherwise unable to answer questions.
"We determine when their infectious period started," which is two days prior to the onset of symptoms or if asymptomatic two days before a positive test was collected, Jones said.
"Exposure" is defined as within three feet of someone with COVID-19 for more than 15 minutes in a day.
While "bad news is always hard to hear," Jones has always felt supported, even when she had to tell a student-athlete he or she had to miss an important game due to quarantine, or inform a senior he or she wouldn't be able to attend a pivotal senior event.
It's "been all about teamwork, because COVID-19 has affected all of us physically, mentally and emotionally," Jones said. "Everyone understood, 'This is just the way it is.'"
Her degree in psychology "always helps" in her nursing duties, but especially so during the pandemic, she said.
"In addition to the physical component, there's a psychological component with COVID-19."
A 2006 healthcare mission trip to Peru put Jones on the nursing path, and she learned through the "excellent" nursing program at Dalton State College, she said.
In Peru, she saw how health aid could "help people in an important way, and I wanted to do that."