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Schools, students adjust to COVID-19

Johnson: ‘Kids are very resilient’

-Messenger photo by Kelby Wingert
Student desks in Anna Boustead’s second-grade classroom at Cooper Elementary School are spread apart to facilitate social distancing within the classroom. Some students also choose to wear face coverings.

Editor’s note: This is part of a series examining the impact of COVID-19 on our community six months into the pandemic.

When students in the Fort Dodge area left school for spring break back in March, they had no idea it would be five months before they stepped back into their classrooms.

And when they returned, everything was completely different from what they’d known before. Classes are smaller, desks are pulled farther apart, they’re being asked to wash their hands more frequently, they can’t share pencils or crayons, they have to stay within separated “zones” at recess.

The novel coronavirus, and the COVID-19 illness it causes, has changed everything.

It’s all so strange, but the students have been taking it all in stride, local educators agree.

-Messenger photo by Kelby Wingert
Students in Mike Pavik’s sixth grade science class at Fort Dodge Middle School take notes on pendulums on Sept. 22. While students in the district are not required to wear face coverings, many have chosen to do so this fall.

“Kids are very resilient,” said Mark Johnson, interim principal at St. Paul Lutheran School. “I think they’ve taken it really well.”

He said that while the younger, preschool and kindergarten-aged students don’t understand what’s going on with the coronavirus, the older students are adjusting well to the changes caused by the pandemic.

“Maybe sometimes the kids are handling it better than some of the adults,” Johnson said.

Johnson said that St. Paul school has worked closely with Webster County Public Health on establishing policies to help keep students and teachers safe during the pandemic.

“Our school lends itself pretty well to social distancing because we have a low student-to-teacher ratio, so most of our classes have around 10 or 11 students and it’s a lot easier to social distance,” Johnson said.

-Messenger photo by Kelby Wingert

St. Paul students have been “really good” about using hand sanitizer and washing their hands more frequently, he added.

“They’re pretty good at it,” he said. “I’ve observed some of the little kids and when they sneeze, they run over to sanitize without even being told.”

Unlike other area schools, St. Paul is unable to offer its families an online option at this time because it doesn’t quite have enough computer devices for each student enrolled, Johnson said.

“We’re working on trying to get enough computers and possibly through the CARES Act, we’re looking to get some more Chromebooks,” he said, adding that St. Paul is only about eight devices short.

If and when a student tests positive or has close exposure to another individual who tests positive, St. Paul is requiring that the students stay out of school for 14 days and be fever-free for 72 hours prior to returning. This policy is a little more stringent than current CDC quarantine and isolation guidelines.

-Messenger photo by Kelby Wingert
St. Edmond Catholic School fifth-grader Ava Bradley cleans her hands using the hand sanitizer station outside her classroom. Each classroom in the building has a hand sanitizer station right outside it to help eliminate germs and the spread of COVID-19.

“How we’re a little bit more conservative is if a staff member tests positive, I think the guidelines say they quarantine for 10 days, but we do 14,” Johnson said. “And when the teacher comes back, they wear a mask for five days.”

When St. Edmond Catholic School started its fall semester on Aug. 24, Principal Abby Glass breathed a sigh of relief.

“It’s beautiful to have kids back in the building,” she said.

Prior to the start of the school year, the St. Edmond administration created a team with parents, faculty and some students to collaborate on the best options to keep kids safe and healthy and in school and to maintain the school’s mission of providing a Catholic education.

“So whether students are learning here on site or from a distance, that really was the center and the core of our decisions,” Glass said.

The plan included increased cleaning in high traffic areas and adding a hand sanitizer station outside every classroom. Students are also required to wear masks or other face coverings and students eat lunch in their classrooms.

Glass said the school is using the face covering use as an opportunity to “live their faith” by “loving thy neighbor.”

“I’m very proud of the kids and families for getting on board and taking care of each other so that we can make this happen,” she said.

Though the last school year ended abruptly and students were unable to finish their classwork, St. Edmond educators chose to not start the fall semester trying to “play catch up,” Glass said. Instead, teachers are continually identifying if and when a student needs extra help to fill in the gaps.

“I think kids are very resilient, I think we have very bright children,” she said. “Not just here at St. Edmond, but I think everywhere. … We do have measures in place to make sure that we can support kids wherever they’re at in their understanding.”

Like St. Edmond, Community Christian School established a return to learn committee over the summer to collaborate with the school board, principal and teachers to come up with a plan.

“Our big focus is we want kids to be in the building and we want everybody to be healthy,” said CCS Principal Stephanie Coble-Day.

One of the major changes made at CCS, was how students arrive in the morning.

CCS staff and volunteers are controlling the flow of traffic by assigning different grades to different entrances – preschool and kindergarten at one entrance, first through fourth grades at another entrance and fifth through eighth grades at yet another entrance. Each student has their temperature taken when entering the building and students are required to wear masks in all common areas like hallways, the chapel, restroom and the cafeteria.

Coble-Day said the school has spread out chairs and desks in classrooms as best as possible, but allows students to take their masks off when they’re in their classroom units.

“The classroom will be like their own little island, their safe zone,” she said.

Each student will receive two masks from the school, with the hope that they will launder them often.

“Our goal is to keep the building open because we know the importance of the connections with the students and the teachers,” she said.

Coble-Day said CCS does have a protocol in place in the event that a classroom or even the whole building has to close for a period of time. The school will use Google Classroom to continue learning remotely, as each student in grades first through eighth receive a computer from the school to use. The principal did say that they are hoping if the situation does arise, that the school will be able to close individual classrooms rather than the entire building.

“We want our kids to feel healthy and safe and protected when they’re here, so we hope that starting out by day one with the protocols in place, we will eliminate most of the opportunity of COVID,” she said.

As the largest school district in Webster County, the Fort Dodge Community School District spent countless hours navigating how to safely get students back in the classroom this fall by the time school started on Aug. 25.

“I think what we’ve learned is the hours upon hours of planning and preparation for the year and the ‘what ifs’ and the policies and procedures we’ve put in place have worked,” said Superintendent Jesse Ulrich. “It’s been a successful start to a school year.”

The district and Webster County Public Health have been on the same page since Day 1, Ulrich said.

When the FDCSD released its return-to-learn plan in August, it started with three learning models — fully in school, fully online and a hybrid of the two. The district also offered parents and guardians the option of choosing to keep their students at home and use an at-home learning platform.

Currently there are 974 students using the at-home learning option this term, about 25% of the district’s enrollment. In transitional kindergarten through fourth grade, there are 247 students learning at home, with 286 from Fort Dodge Middle School and 441 from Fort Dodge Senior High.

Some of the feedback Ulrich has received from parents utilizing the at-home learning option is that some seem surprised about how difficult online learning can be.

“We are adhering to what the state’s expectations are in regards to the same rigor and effort as if they were in school,” he said.

While the school is offering this full-time online option, students who test positive for COVID-19 or have had close contact with someone who has will also do learning online while quarantined out of school. However, it is a different format than the full-time online learners.

Those who are in quarantine continue with the classes they were taking in school, using Google Classroom and email to get their lessons and assignments from teachers.

“At one point we had about 120 students district-wide who had been deemed ‘close contact,’ and our teachers were still taking care of those students as well as the students that were in their own classrooms,” Ulrich said. “Kudos to our staff for continuing to do the best teaching and learning that we can, given non-optimal situations.”

One of the things the district has had to learn is how to inform parents of another student’s positive COVID-19 diagnosis while effectively protecting that student’s privacy, Ulrich said. Recently, the Iowa Department of Education released new guidance on how to balance sharing information without sharing too much, he added.

Clustering students into smaller cohorts within their classrooms has helped limit some opportunities for exposure, Ulrich said.

While the FDCSD was preparing for the beginning of the fall term, much of its leaders’ attention was on the county’s 14-day positivity rate. At one point, the start of the school year was postponed because the Iowa Department of Public Health had Webster County’s positivity rate at 23.2%. Within days, that rate decreased to 12.9% after a backlog of nearly 3,000 tests were entered into the data.

“I think statewide, I wish they would take a look at the metrics that they’re using for determining how school stays open because I don’t think positivity rate alone is a great metric to determine the viability of the mode of learning that we’re using,” Ulrich said. “I think other states are using infection rates per thousand and those types of things that should be part of the equation rather than just positivity rates.”

Ulrich said that while the information known about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 has changed and is constantly expanding, the district’s goal through all of this has stayed the same.

“We are committed to providing a safe environment for our students and staff and we are still committed to being a community partner in order to do the right thing to not overwhelm our health care system,” he said.

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