‘As normal as possible:’ WC school districts look forward to new year

By: 
Bridget Shileny

Busses are ready, backpacks are loaded, and the doors will soon be open. School around the county starts next week already. All three Wright County districts, Clarion-Goldfield-Dows, Eagle Grove and Belmond-Klemme will be getting back to school on August 23. Ahead of that date, the superintendents of all three schools sat down to discuss what back-to-school looks like this year versus last and how COVID is still an ever-present concern.

When asked the broad question, ‘what will school look like next week?,’ all three superintendents essentially said “like a normal school year.” Dr. Daniel Frazier, BK Superintendent, noted, “The CDC has said that we should return kids to as normal of a routine as possible because that’s how kids thrive. We learned last year that the stresses of online teaching and learning weren’t as effective as a normal classroom situation.”

Eagle Grove Supt. Jess Toliver added that they are planning on their regular routine as well. “We’re having our back-to-school night and parents will be allowed in the building. Lunch and recess will also look pretty normal this year.” CGD Superintendent Joe Nelson added that the year will look “as normal as possible given it is school during a pandemic.”

The three admins were pretty much in lockstep on most issues. They explained that they had decided last year to put on a united front in the face of COVID. “The three of us resolved that we would be united and work with Public Health and the hospital to provide a unified message for the county,” said Frazier.

That does not mean that questions aren’t swirling, especially in the face of a new school year. A frequent question that all three administrators and their school boards are getting is whether they will require masking in schools like they did most of last year. The answer is no, because, by law, they cannot make this requirement. HF 847 signed by Governor Reynolds on May 20 prohibits school districts from adopting or enforcing a policy that requires employees, students, or the public to wear a mask while on school property.

Masks can be suggested, however. Both Tolliver and Frazier noted that they are at least recommending masks in schools. All three men also added that they will make an effort to promote acceptance in schools if students or teachers DO choose to wear masks. “We don’t want people to feel pressured one way or another,” said Nelson. “It’s a family choice and we will respect those decisions.”  

Last year, both EG and BK schools were closed for short periods at different points during the school year. CGD was able to remain open all year. Tolliver stated, “If anything happens with high case counts, if we have ‘hot spots,’ we will start imposing restrictions based on the guidance of public health.” The other superintendents agreed.

Regarding that entity, Wright County Public Health Director Sandy McGrath said that local public health still will be conducting contact tracing and require quarantining of positive cases and isolation for exposure to positive cases. Recently, the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) issued a COVID guidance update for schools, noting that the state is not conducting case investigation or contact tracing and can’t require schools to do that tracing. Yet, local public health can still take on those responsibilities itself, which McGrath has noted that they will do. See the story below for more information on the guidelines local public health is following.

Regarding activities outside the regular classroom, the three supts also said that extra curriculars will basically look normal this year. Spectators won’t be limited at sporting events, concerts, theater productions and concessions will be available. All three added that they are looking forward to opening the gates again and seeing fans and the community at events, especially since activity budgets took a significant hit last year with very limited ticket sales.

The superintendents stated that they are comfortable with all of these positions because so much has changed in the last year, the biggest factor being the availability of the vaccine. “Last year, we had limited options without the vaccine,” emphasized Tolliver. “This year we have some defense. It’s people’s choice now if they want to get it. So I think that gives us more flexibility on what we can offer.”

Vaccinations have also been widely available to school staff since last spring, with clinics held at all three districts. All three men noted that the majority of their staffs chose to get vaccinated. Frazier added, “After losing a teacher to COVID last year, we had a high rate of vaccinations and caution among staff.”

Students ages 12 and up are also now able to get the Pfizer vaccine with parental consent. BK and EG both held vaccine clinics at their schools aimed at students, while CGD made families aware that the vaccine was available elsewhere in Clarion for that age group.

Ultimately, the area superintendents are hopeful regarding the upcoming school year, but all are clear-headed that changes to guidance are likely. They agreed that they could very well see mask rules, contact tracing advice, and other guidance changing mid-school year. If new guidance or laws come down from the top, they will be obligated to follow them, they all reiterated.

As the school year starts, all three districts noted that online learning on an everyday basis won’t really be an option. The districts have moved away from having classroom teachers also conducting the same classes online for at-home students throughout the day. All three superintendents said that had proved to be very difficult and taxing, especially for teachers. “The education on demand model just didn’t work that well,” explained Frazier.

The three also noted that most online learners who started the school year that way came back to in-person school fairly early. “Once people saw what the classroom would be like, they came back pretty quickly,” said Tolliver. Nelson said they only had about 20 online learners by the end of the school year, while the other superintendents reported similar numbers.

Though they are not offering online learning at the beginning of the year, the superintendents say they are prepared to move to that option at any time in the event of outbreaks and high case numbers. “Iowa has been aggressive in preparing for online learning over the years,” said Frazier. Tolliver added “We are ready to go virtual for an extended period of time if we have to.” They again reiterated that they will follow the guidance of public health on such matters.

As they look forward to the upcoming year, all three superintendents are cautiously optimistic, as are their staffs. “I think that teachers are more confident going into this year. We know better what to expect now,” said Frazier.

They acknowledge that COVID has not gone away and probably will not, but they need to keep moving forward. “Of course we’re concerned,” said Nelson, “But we had success dealing with this last year and we’re going to continue to rise to the occasion and meet those unseen challenges again this year.”

In the end, the superintendents say their goals are the same as they have always been.  Tolliver stressed, “Our mission remains the same, this year and every year even though our situation can change: to provide quality education.”

 

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Wright County Monitor

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