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Charles City educators keep students, community engaged through virtual means

Charles City educators keep students, community engaged through virtual means
Charles City para-educator Lynn Bauer is one among dozens of teachers and staff in the school district finding ways to keep in touch with students online during the COVID-19 shutdown. (Submitted photo.)
By James Grob,

This week is “Spirit Week” at Washington Elementary. Monday was “Move It Monday,” where students were encouraged to share a photo or video of their favorite dance moves.

Tuesday is “National Crayon Day,” Wednesday is “Whatcha’ Reading Day,” Thursday is “Pet Day” and Friday is “Comet Spirit Day,” where students can share their best crayon creation, a picture of what they’re reading, a picture of their pet (real or stuffed) and a picture in their favorite orange and black attire on the appropriate day.

Wednesday will be the CC Spirit Cruise, where students, families, teachers and other school staff will be driving on a route through the city beginning at 11 a.m., so students and their families can come out and wave at them from an acceptable distance.

Meanwhile, the students at Charles City High School can all log into a Google platform to keep up with what’s been going on in their classrooms.

Students at all grades in between are being regularly engaged electronically by their teachers — whether it be by phone, email, social media or other virtual means.

The school may be shut down until at least April 13, but learning continues, every day, in Charles City.

“As the parent of two middle schoolers, I’ve really appreciated all the communication coming from the teachers,” said Charles City school board Vice-President Missy Freund. “I think it really helps the students, who are having a hard time with this right now.”

Fellow board member Pat Rottinghaus said it more simply.

“I’ve been very proud of our school district these past couple of weeks.”

CCHS junior Cael Ruzicka said he’s been able to stay pretty busy on the farm during the shutdown, but he can attest to the fact that teachers are reaching out to the students.

“I’ve had multiple videos from ag teachers and other teachers,” Ruzicka said. “We’ve been doing some pretty fun labs at home that we can do on our own.”

Ruzicka said teachers have regularly lectured subjects to him and his classmates via video.

“We have our textbooks, and we’re making the best of what we have,” he said.

Ruzicka said he didn’t necessarily prefer online learning to being there in person, but it is a good way to learn if a student is motivated to do so.

“I miss my friends, of course. That’s one thing that you get from going to school,” he said. “I think a lot of people like going to school better. The online stuff isn’t terrible, but it’s a lot harder to stay motivated, because you have to do it by yourself.”

Charles City Superintendent Mike Fisher said the district is developing some learning alternatives for kids working online. He said Joe Taylor, middle school principal, is leading a task force of other principals, several teachers and staff members that is looking into who needs additional internet access and access to other technology.

“We still have lots of employees working and doing their things,” Fisher said. “We are asking all of our teachers continue to reach out to our kids, and we have lots of parents volunteering.”

Fisher said the school district is also working on public service announcements to help educate students as to the importance of social distancing. He said the district is practicing what it preaches — central service employees as well as senior leaders are spread out between all the different buildings in the district as well as working from home whenever possible.

“The bigger piece to this is we’re a family,” Fisher said. “We take care of each other and do the right thing.”

Fisher has, on occasion, personally delivered video addresses to the community during the shutdown, with the intention to engage and inform the public. For the first week of the shutdown, the district sent out updates to parents and staff each weeknight at 6 p.m. Those have now been scaled back to Mondays and Wednesdays, or if new information is urgent.

“The communication that we have going out to our families about the services we have available to them, we’re letting them know the district is there for them,” said Rottinghaus. “Whether it’s food services, mental health, whatever it might me — people shouldn’t hesitate to contact somebody if they need help.”

Services to the community during the shutdown have included counseling services, free lunches and child care for workers fighting the novel coronavirus.

Free take-home meals are available for Charles City students age 18 and under. The service runs from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. every weekday at Washington Elementary. Since its inception, the district has expanded pickup sites to Lantern Park and Clarkview Drive, and to in-town families with no means of transportation, as well as at the Floyd Community Center.

The district has hungry students covered on the weekends, too. Charles City’s Backpack Program is a free program that provides kid-friendly, non-perishable food for students to eat over weekends and breaks when school meals are not available.

Any child is welcome to participate in the Backpack Program with no questions asked. A parent or guardian just needs to fill out a form available on the Charles City School District’s website. Families with multiple children can put them all on one form and each child will receive a food bag.

The district is also providing free child care to families “working on the front lines against COVID-19.” The primary facility for the program is at Washington Elementary, and the secondary facility is TLC: The Learning Center.

“The child care available for health care workers is a really good opportunity. I think that’s going to be really helpful,” said school board President Josh Mack. “It’s very impressive, what the school district has been able to accomplish.”

Those eligible as “essential workforce” include all hospital staff, all healthcare providers in private practice and all direct care staff, all long-term health care providers, staff who provide critical government infrastructure such as social services, child protection services, other public safety, and help other public health officials, emergency responders and food-service workers, including grocery store staff.

The district is also looking into other ways to help the community. Projects in the works include finding safe ways to get groceries to elderly citizens, finding ways to provide hand sanitizer to the hospital and even looking into procuring some toilet paper, via a donation to the district, to give to needy families.

“We want to help heal our community and lower anxiety, and be a community leader in that way,” Fisher said.

Maintaining calm and lowering anxiety in the community seem to be the primary goals of the district during the shutdown.

“The video chats between students and teachers have done exceptionally well to maintain everyone’s calm and continue to move through this crisis,” said school board member Scott Dight. “You just can’t say enough about all of our staff and how great of a job they’re doing.”

All the school board members said they thought the community’s reaction to the district’s response to the COVID-19 situation has been overwhelmingly positive.

“I’ve seen nothing but positive comments, mainly, on social media,” said Freund. “Normal life has been disrupted for the students, so I think it’s great that the teachers have been reaching out, even if it’s just to check in and say hi.”

Most importantly, the students themselves have bought into it.

“It’s a big change for all of us, but I feel it’s important that we stay true to what’s going on and how this is happening,” said Ruzicka.