WATERLOO — Schools across the Cedar Valley are preparing to educate students in the COVID-19 era.
Administrators at the region’s public and parochial school systems have prepared plans detailing how they will provide face-to-face instruction for classes starting this fall. They also outline ways to do that from a distance, if necessary. In many schools across Black Hawk County and the surrounding area, that will mean making more technology purchases so all students have access to a computer.
The Cedar Valley’s largest school district acted last month to ensure every elementary student will have a Chromebook computer, as is already the case in its secondary grades. Waterloo Community Schools is spending more than $500,000 on the additional 2,000 computers for first through fifth grades, funded with federal CARES Act dollars.
“It will add approximately $300,000 to our annual budget,” said Superintendent Jane Lindaman, noting the program will be sustained during future years. “We have enough money in our budget that we can allocate dollars to replacement costs.”
Cedar Falls Community Schools already provided Chromebooks for all students in third through 12th grades. The district recently ordered 400 iPads to extend the computer initiative to every student in preschool through second grade, supplementing devices it already had for those children.
The Courier contacted officials at 21 school systems in the region about their “Return to Learn” plans, which had to be submitted to the Iowa Department of Education on Wednesday. This story is based on email responses and phone interviews from 17 of the public and parochial school systems. Nearly all of them are sticking with their previously scheduled start date, which is largely Aug. 24.
Six other school systems also provided partial one-to-one technology that was expanded to all students in the spring, or will be in the fall. Those include Hudson, Dike-New Hartford, Independence, Fairbank’s Wapsie Valley, Cedar Falls’ St. Patrick and Gilbertville’s Bosco schools. Jesup Community Schools is moving to a one-to-one program for grades five through 12 this fall.
Union Community Schools in La Porte City, Grundy Center Community Schools, Aplington-Parkersburg Community Schools and Denver Community Schools already provided computer devices for every student. Waterloo Christian School already provided them to grades six through 12 and will continue that approach.
Lindaman suggested the push for greater technology in the Cedar Valley and nationwide due to the coronavirus pandemic will transform schools. “We believe strongly that education has changed forever,” she said.
Technology upgrades are not the only way area schools will look different this fall.
St. Patrick School has set up a daily regimen to reduce the chance a child with coronavirus symptoms spends the day in class. Parents will be asked to do an online self-assessment of their children to determine if they are healthy enough to go to school. Students will not congregate on the playground once they arrive, but head directly to classrooms for a temperature check.
“If a child has a fever of 100.3 or greater, they will be sent home,” said Principal Lynette Hackett.
The Bosco school system will take measures, as well, to limit possible exposure.
“We have modified our sick student/staff member process from having them report to the nurses’ office,” said Chris Kangas, development director. Rather, the nurse will “come to them to do an assessment in a separate location. This will allow us to isolate anyone with as little … contamination as possible.”
At all area schools, much more cleaning will happen in buildings and plenty of hand sanitizer will be available. Officials are also devising ways to enable social distancing in classrooms that have typically been filled with students.
Students and teachers will be allowed to wear masks, and a number of school systems have already purchased a supply. However, at this point, no decisions have been made locally to require them in schools. Some, including St. Patrick, will even outfit many of their staff members with face shields.
“We decided they would be a better option than masks so students could see their teachers’ facial expressions,” said Hackett.
Staying on track
In addition, school systems are looking at ways to educate students who fell behind in their learning this spring. Some children didn’t engage with online lessons provided by schools while others require more intensive work because they’re in special needs or English learner subgroups, for example.
“We will be utilizing our intervention times,” said Union Superintendent Travis Fleshner, which are built into the daily schedule. That time will be used “to assist in filling in gaps in learning that occurred during this closure.”
Jesup Superintendent Nathan Marting said staff in his district already have looked at what learning students achieved by the end of the school year.
“Much of their work was around charting student engagement during the school closure,” he explained. That included “assessing which standards were covered and which were not, and then making plans by grade-level and department on how to begin addressing those in the fall.”
Robert Hughes, superintendent of Grundy Center and Aplington-Parkersburg schools, said teachers in both districts also did work at the end of the year preparing to educate students this fall. Grundy Center, which extended its school year to add three days starting Aug. 19, is taking a unique approach to ensuring students are on track.
It will begin this fall with students in the classes they were finishing when school was interrupted in the spring. Hughes said the shortened session will provide closure and an opportunity to assess where students are at.
Many school systems, including Cedar Falls, plan to start the year with learning objectives for the grade level students advance to this fall.
“It’s recommended that we move into what they call accelerated learning,” said Pam Zeigler, associate superintendent for instruction and learning. When a student hasn’t mastered a skill that will be built on, it will be taught at that time along with the new concept.
“We really don’t want to teach things in isolation, we want to scaffold them and accelerate the learning,” she noted.
Along with the scaffolding concept, Hudson Community Schools will provide additional assistance outside of the classroom for those who are struggling.
“We will plan to extend learning as needed, utilizing after-school programming,” said Superintendent Tony Voss. “While we aren’t planning to lengthen the school year or school day right now, we may determine later in the year it would be beneficial to do so.”
He added, “A more comprehensive summer school program during the summer of 2021 is under consideration, as well.”
The Waterloo and Cedar Falls districts are beginning to tackle those issues this summer.
They are continuing online high school credit recovery courses. A Jump Start program is being offered to Waterloo students in kindergarten through eighth grade needing academic assistance. In Cedar Falls, a virtual extended summer school is underway for qualifying special education students, while any elementary students can participate in an online math and reading program to continue working on their skills. The Grundy Center and Aplington-Parkersburg districts will also hold summer school programs to address achievement concerns.
Schools are preparing for multiple scenarios this fall with plans for in-person and online instruction. Most have developed contingencies for a hybrid of the two, as well.
Some planning for these options was done this spring when buildings were closed and students learned from home. But many schools made that voluntary, which will change in the fall.
“If we have to implement remote continued learning, it will be required with grades, credit, and attendance taken,” said Voss. “Teachers will be delivering instruction.”
Even when students are in the classroom, though, Waterloo Schools will make use of its expanded technology to maintain social distance. Lindaman noted that in the past district schools have pushed group work during class, but “that will not happen” this year.
“Instead of using physical group work, we’ll have virtual group work,” she said. “The technology we’ll have will allow that to happen.”
While the district is planning on having students return to buildings, it will accommodate others who want to work online from home.
“We strongly believe we will have some families of students who will be requesting a virtual option,” said Lindaman. Audio or video recordings of classes will be pushed out to those students and “we’re looking at options for real time” recording, as well.
She acknowledged that means added duties for staff, but noted only one class where multiple sections are offered would be recorded.
Independence Community Schools also expects to have some students learning remotely, no matter what plan is put in place. The district has changed its calendar for the coming year, moving a two-hour early release for students to Fridays. Superintendent Russell Reiter said that will allow for teachers to work with students learning remotely as well as meeting professional development needs.
If the district needs to go a hybrid approach “we’re looking at having A-B days,” he noted. Half of the students would attend school in the buildings on their designated days with the others learning from home. No students would be in the building on the fifth day of the week, allowing students to work from home on projects and other more independent learning.
Waverly-Shell Rock Community Schools would take a similar approach with half of its students at home and in school every other week if a hybrid model is necessary. Family groups would be kept on the same schedule, regardless of grade level.
Busing is also a concern as districts continue to think about social distancing. Decisions haven’t been made regarding how that will be handled. Some officials noted parents can help reduce the number of students riding, though.
“Our hope is that some parents will have the ability to bring and pick up their students, which will help lessen the number of kids riding the bus,” said Dike-New Hartford Superintendent Justin Stockdale.
Lindaman is counting on that for Waterloo Schools. “We believe that is one of the things that will be necessary going forward,” she said.
That may mean more flexibility in school schedules for students. The district is also looking to employers to make some of those parent drop-offs possible by allowing some flexibility in their schedules.
“We are working right now with businesses,” said Lindaman.
UNI Social Justice mural
Concerned about COVID-19?
Sign up now to get the most recent coronavirus headlines and other important local and national news sent to your email inbox daily.