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Citizens of the Year: Education during a pandemic
School teachers and administrators adapted, and still adapt, in unprecedented times
Retrospect 2020 cover

To say that 2020 has been a challenge for the entire world is a master-of-the-obvious-level understatement.

The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic represented a particular challenge for Wisconsin teachers in at least two ways. The statewide school shutdown ordered just before most school districts’ spring vacation in mid-March forced teachers to figure out how to teach students online for what turned out to be the rest of the school year.

Preparing for the 2020–21 school year added multiple levels of uncertainty — whether the state would allow schools to open or force online teaching, what school districts would allow, would schools have to veer between in-person and online teaching, and would there be enough teachers and other educational staff to teach children in person.

Neither university schools of education nor postgraduate educational administration programs prepared anyone for education during a worldwide pandemic.

“The past nine months have been very difficult for everyone involved in education,” said Platteville School District superintendent Jim Boebel. “Every person is facing challenges we have not faced before.”

“The pandemic has been challenging on everyone,” said Iowa–Grant superintendent Stephanie Hubbard. “As a school administrator, the most challenging part is to recognize each individual’s challenges and perspectives and to use this to make big decisions and little ones. The big decisions involve the whole district and the options and opportunities we can reasonably safely offer our students. The little decisions, which are equally important, involve recognizing where there are individuals struggling and finding the supports they need to find success.”

“As a first-year superintendent, the 2019–20 school year was a continual year of ‘new experiences,” said Potosi superintendent Kurt Cohen. “Obviously, the pandemic, school closure in the spring, and the reopening plan for this fall have just added to the ‘new experiences.’ Working through the pandemic has created a situation where I am constantly striving to remember that while our COVID protocols must always stay in the front of our minds and conversations, the other ‘everyday things’ that are necessary in the running of our district and educating our students cannot be forgotten. 

“The network of fellow district leaders throughout the area and state has only been strengthened through the pandemic. Their support has been essential to me during this time.”

“I do not know if this year has been more difficult, but the problems that we have to deal with have been different from those in the past,” said Wayne Anderson, who took over July 1 as the Belmont Community School District’s interim superintendent for the 2020–21 school year. “We have been able to offer in-person instruction for most of the year, but the district has to constantly deal with how many staff and students are out of school either because they have contracted COVID-19 or are being quarantined because they have come in contact with someone who tested positive.  The greatest difficulty is that we are expecting our staff to teach both in-person and virtually at the same time.  This can be quite stressful and draining, but our staff has done an excellent job providing instruction to our students in both formats.”

The 2019–20 school year came to an abrupt end inside schools when Gov. Tony Evers ordered the closing of public and private schools as of March 18. Most school districts announced their closing the weekend before the state required them to close. The fourth quarter of the 2019–20 school was spent completely online, including in school districts with substandard broadband.

“In March, the news and information about the COVID-19 virus was so new that none of us knew what to expect,” said Anderson. “When Gov. Evers made the decision to close down schools in March, most of us felt that we would be back sometime in April. However, as more information became available we adjusted to the situation and started to figure out how to do virtual instruction and provide meals to our families.”

 “We did support the state-ordered shutdown in March as we needed to put our trust in the experts for ensuring the best course forward with regards to the safety of our students,” said Cohen. “That has been and will continue to be our priority … educating our students in the best manner that provides the safest method for students and staff.”

“Following the order was challenging, but the students, staff, parents, and Iowa–Grant community pulled together to make the best of things,” said Hubbard. “The way that the community rallied to support each other was phenomenal and was key to successful virtual teaching and learning. IG did some amazing things which we would have never realized could have been accomplished if not for the pandemic. We learned just how strong we are together. 

“Our goal was to adapt as effectively and efficiently as we could given the circumstances,” said Boebel.

Once the state decided — by not announcing that schools should shut down statewide, despite rumors to the contrary and larger school districts, including Madison and La Crosse, starting the school year online-only — to allow schools to open this fall, the focus then shifted to individual school districts, with administrators and school boards deciding how to teach as safely as possible. 

“I was glad that school districts had the option to make the decisions they felt would be best for their school district in the fall,” said Anderson. “The Belmont Community School District felt that providing both an in-person and virtual option would be the best for us and so far, it has been working.

“In order to get staff and students back into school this fall, the District needed to find a way to bring everyone back safely.  We have been able to do this by wearing masks, separating classroom desks to a safe distance, not allowing individuals to come in to the school during the school day and implementing a deep cleaning and sanitation programs to disinfect our common spaces and classrooms. I do not think our district had any challenges that would be unique to us alone, but I think that we learned to lean on each other to help find ways to deal with the issues that we were presented with because of the pandemic.”

 “Iowa–Grant did a lot of listening to the community as we determined our return to learning plans for the 2020–21 school year,” said Hubbard. “The plan has continued to evolve as the school year has progressed. We have learned to respect the differences on perspectives. We provide options of both virtual and in-person instruction. The safety of our students and staff is of utmost importance. We watch indicators which could turn to red at any time and we are prepared to pivot to virtual instruction only when in-person is too risky. We have come to value each day we are able to offer in-person learning for our students. There have been a ton of adjustments made which has made our learning options viable including: wearing masks, regular cleaning of hands, desks, and materials, maintaining social distancing, recording virtual lessons, and always being flexible!”

“In our situation, one of our challenges dealt with the fact that we are housed in one building for all grades 4K–12,” said Cohen. “In previous years, it was common to see all ages of students in many areas throughout the building. With our new guidelines in place where we are limiting the contact of students from different grades, we have created two ‘separate’ buildings by closing off access between our elementary and middle/high school hallways. Among other issues, this separation meant that we had to create a second school office for the elementary wing.

“While not a unique challenge to our district, the lack of substitute teachers has been a challenge at times for us. Our staff has gone above and beyond to help fill in when needed, often giving up their prep time to help a colleague who is absent.”

School board meetings were occasionally volatile as some parents didn’t think having their children in school was safe, and some teachers expressed their concerns for their own health or their families’ health.

“Our school board has been phenomenal,” said Hubbard. “Nobody signed up for their role on the school board because of knowledge or understandings of how to weather a pandemic, but rather they were thrust into this role and it had to have been more challenging than expected. We have a lot of people who have weighed in with their thoughts and concerns regarding this school year. We appreciate everyone’s opinions and thoughtful ideas. The fact that we gave families a virtual option was key in our success.”

“The Belmont Community Board of Education has been extremely supportive and involved throughout the process,” said Anderson. “The board vhelped develop the return to school plan that was developed this summer and has been very attuned to the opinions, questions and wishes of the staff, students, parents and community. They listened to what individuals had to say, asked the tough and difficult questions and supported the administrative recommendations that we were making concerning both going to school and when necessary going 100-percent virtual. A superintendent could not have asked for a more supportive board and community.”

Platteville schools taught most students in person four days a week, going virtual on Wednesdays while maintenance crews cleaned buildings. Seventh- through 12th-graders were divided into Monday–Tuesday and Thursday–Friday groups, going virtual the rest of the week. Seventh- and eighth-graders were at Platteville Middle School four days a week during the second quarter. 

“Each school building had to create a school day under the premise that we were going to wear a face covering, physically distance, and increase hand hygiene,” said Boebel. “We landed on using a cohort approach to help us through those challenges. In the cohort model, most of our younger students stay in the same classroom all day instead of rotating between different classrooms. By being able to reduce the number of people that each person is interacting with during a school day, we have been able to provide in-person instruction. Our transportation routes have been revised to reduce risks and our meals are served in classrooms or available for pick-up.”

“One of the biggest challenges has been quarantining close contacts,” said Hubbard. “When a child has been in a home or classroom with someone who ends up with COVID or one of our people become infected with COVID, quarantining is challenging. The challenges are real and frustrating so kudos to all of the individuals who have had to face one or more quarantines.”

The unprecedented school year resulted in innovative solutions to problems, some in the classroom, and some in areas like school lunch.

“Lots of staff and community members have stepped up to help us recognize our strengths and weaknesses as well as providing helpful ideas,” said Hubbard. “Our community is very invested in our school’s success, which makes my job not only easier, but also pleasurable.

“I wish that there was a way to show the community how hard our teachers are working to help students find success, whether in person or virtually. While the overall sentiment is that of appreciation, there are one or two comments occasionally [when] it is obvious that the individuals don’t have a clue to what is going on behind the scenes to support our students during this pandemic. Our board, teachers, custodians, food service, other support staff, and principals are truly amazing and enough good things can not be said or written about them. They care about each student at IG. This goes beyond student learning.”

“From the start of the school year, we have been able to provide in-person learning for the vast majority of our students,” said Cohen. “We have also allowed a virtual learning platform for students/families that have chosen that delivery and/or for students that have been required to quarantine at times throughout this first semester.

“As a group, we decided early on that we would shorten the school day by 35 minutes to allow staff the time needed to reach out to virtual students to ensure their progress. With the backing of the school board and our community, the shortened day has worked well.”

“Some [teachers] were much more familiar with the different forms of technology and technology platforms, but they served as tutors and mentors for the staff that were not as advanced,” said Anderson. “The staff tackled this challenge as a team and have been reaping the positive rewards of their collaborative efforts.”

“The Platteville community can be proud of the innovative and dedicated efforts of our district staff,” said Boebel. “This is not just limited to our classroom teachers. All of our employees have made adjustments and grown during this pandemic.”

The impending end of the first semester of the school year leaves questions of how many, if any, so-called normal aspects of a school year might return for the second semester — for instance, every-day attendance, field trips, public attendance at sports or fine arts events, and in-person graduation.

“The district will continue to evaluate and explore how to best serve every student, every day,” said Boebel. “The level of virus activity in our area and the success of our safety mitigation efforts will determine our direction.”

“We are excited by the promise of a vaccine, but for the time being offering both in-person and virtual options will be important for IG’s continued success,” said Hubbard. “We will continue to work closely with both Iowa and Grant county health departments to make wise decisions regarding our in-person learning. Hopefully during the second semester of this school year, we will be able to start to transition back to more normal activities, but most likely we will need to continue all of the extra cleaning, social distancing, masking, and other safety precaution through this entire school year.  Furthermore, flexibility will continue to be key to our success.”

“The Board of Education recently held a special meeting and decided that we would continue with in-person instruction,” said Anderson. “We set the metrics for closing to include the number of staff and substitutes we had to cover all of our classes and the number of students that were in school. We felt that once 20 percent or more of our students were not able to attend school in-person that we would consider going to virtual instruction until it was possible to return to in-person instruction.”

“As of now, our plan will stay the same for second semester,” said Cohen. “As we have done throughout the first semester, we will constantly monitor how our plan is working and will make the necessary changes as new information comes to us.”