West Lyon students social distance

West Lyon High School sophomores Sarah Perez, Kaitlyn Lapka, Kaylen Kruse and Grace Eliason sit socially distanced as they study during a free period. Wearing masks or leaving six feet of distance are required at the high school.

REGIONAL—West Lyon School District superintendent Shawn Kreman was pleasantly surprised when the 100th day of the 2020-21 academic year rolled around with students still learning in person.

He is even more thankful to have students returning to school in person this spring for the second half of a year disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

“For us the 100th day of school is something to celebrate,” Kreman said. “Most years it’s just a day that comes and goes, but this year we didn’t know if we’d have 100 days of school. I think we feel a lot better about that not happening now, but again we don’t know.”

Last spring, educators scrambled in mid-March when the governor abruptly mandated that schools be closed. Many switched to remote learning.

This year, with the benefit of a summer to plan and adapt curriculum and experience gained this past fall, Kreman said he and his staff feel optimistic about navigating a fully in-person spring.

“It’s been a success already regardless of if we have our next five months or not,” Kreman said. “If we’re here on May 20 and that’s our last day of school, that’s going to be another reason to celebrate because we accomplished a full year of school and nothing was given to us in August.”

Academic catch-up

Although the ability to have school in-person is for many superintendents already a success, George-Little Rock School District superintendent Thomas Luxford sees work ahead to make up for academic progress lost last spring.

“When our student learners came back this fall, we knew there was some missing academic opportunities or rigorous opportunities for our students,” Luxford said.

George-Little Rock started the full with two weeks of assessments to understand where students were and adjust accordingly. Making curriculum modifications or providing differentiated instruction is a common practice, but the district has utilized it more heavily this year to help students catch up.

Although students are not fully back on track for where they would be in a normal year, Luxford said they have made significant progress.

That progress will be measured with Iowa Statewide Assessment of Student Progress tests in April. Last year the annual assessment was waived because of COVID-19.

Luxford said he is optimistic about the results of those assessments, although the district will not know how students performed until June. He is hopeful that George-Little Rock students will be fully caught up by May.

“Where we were at the start of the school year and where we are now is very exciting,” he said.

Luxford credited current achievements to curriculum changes and adjustments made over the summer and during the fall as well as the ability to resume and continue largely in-person learning throughout the fall.

“It doesn’t happen overnight,” he said. “It’s a lot of extra work on our teachers and more importantly our families to be embedded in that curriculum.”

Adapting continues

Sibley-Ocheyedan School District superintendent James Craig described last fall as a test-drive of the district’s response strategies in preparation for the spring.

“When this first came out and we started the Return-to-Learn planning over the summer, we talked COVID 24 hours a day,” he said. “There was a long time where we didn’t talk about curriculum or bus routes. We talked about COVID.”

Despite putting in hours creating the plan, Craig said he and his staff realized they would need to make changes from week to week as the year progressed, something he expects to continue through May.

“We just knew that we were going to have to adapt as it went and build the plane as we fly it, as we’ve said a lot this semester,” he said.

That’s meant anything from small tweaks at the classroom level to districtwide changes, like adding a mask mandate in September in response to a spike in cases and students and staff self-isolating after possible exposure.

Like several N’West Iowa school districts, Sibley-Ocheyedan started the fall with masks optional, but Craig said with the benefit of hindsight he wishes the district had implemented a mandate sooner.

“If we’d have had the mask mandate in place, we wouldn’t have had 201 students quarantined at once,” he said.

Craig said his biggest take-away from the fall, however, is to keep open lines of communication and wait like everyone else to hear the latest changes to restrictions or public health guidelines.

“Just to stop trying to outguess the governor and the Legislature and just be patient and wait for it,” he said. “Going ‘I think they’re going to do that next’ or ‘I think they’re going to do this,’ that was a game that expended a lot of energy unnecessarily.”

Vaccines incoming

The arrival of COVID-19 vaccines presents a new twist. So far, priority for vaccine distribution is to health-care workers and staff and residents in long-term care facilities.

After those individuals have received the vaccine, state public health officials have stated the next distribution will be to workers in settings where social distancing is difficult, which would include teachers but not students.

According to South O’Brien School District superintendent Wade Riley, vaccinating staff will have little impact on the COVID-19 mitigation measures in place, at least for the rest of the school year.

“We’re not changing anything until this thing is over,” he said.

South O’Brien was one of the few N’West Iowa school districts that started the year requiring masks when social distancing was not possible, and the district has relocated classes to make room for six feet of distance in every class.

Riley said social distancing and contact tracing have been highly effective in the district, which has had less than 30 confirmed cases since August.

“I can’t think of anything more important during this pandemic than social distancing for our students and even our staff,” he said. “It seems to be working for us and we’re going to continue the path. Hopefully, vaccines can roll out for those that want it and we can get over this.”

However, he expects that moment will not come until after the end of the school year.