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Charles City school’s first week finds challenges, but also inspiration

  • Fourth-grader Hosea Simmons enjoys the first week of school last week. (Photo submitted).

  • Foster Grandparent Toni Piper enjoys the first week of school last week. (Photo submitted).

  • Fourth-graders Atticus Ludington and Emry Shannon enjoy the first week of school last week. (Photo submitted).

By James Grob,

A typical start to any school year presents situations for teachers and staff.

This year has not been typical.

“It’s been a challenging week for our leadership team, and a challenging week for our high school staff,” Charles City Superintendent of Schools Mike Fisher told the school board at a special meeting Friday. “Keep them in your prayers and thoughts. There has been a lot of anxiety.”

The eyes of the community have been on the Charles City School District this past week, the first full week of the new year. The same can be said throughout the state as the plans developed by schools over the summer have gone into place to start the year under the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“What the school district can control has gone extremely smoothly,” said high school vocal music teacher Derek Sturtevant. “The routines and mitigation efforts have gone even better than we anticipated.”

Those sentiments seemed to be shared by several teachers in the district — the things that are under the district’s control have gone well. The things that aren’t under the district’s control loom large, and are cause for concern.

“People seem to be as healthy as they can be, emotionally and spiritually,” Fisher had said on Friday. “We had two great days last week, where it almost seemed normal, except for the masks and distancing.”

Then on Wednesday, the high school reported the first two positive COVID-19 cases among students.

The school district reported six positive tests at the high school last week, with eight more reported Monday this week, for a total of 14. More than 100 high school students have been quarantined as of Monday. Most of the positive cases last week could be traced back to the football team, and as a result, the team has put practices and games on hold for two weeks.

“The reality is we’re going to face some difficult situations with quarantined students and positive cases, but at no point have I felt that we’ve been without leadership and without a clear plan,” Sturtevant said.

District-wide, 16 positive cases have been reported as of Monday this week, with 130 students placed in quarantine.

“Everybody seems positive, everyone is rolling with the punches,” Fisher said. “I’m really proud of our staff. They are making sure nobody gets left behind, and they are tough, resilient people.”

As many as 70 staff and community members worked on the district’s “Return To Learn,” plan, which had to be conceived and constructed over the summer. The district’s hybrid plan includes both on-site and remote learning, and presents families with the option of 100% online learning if that’s what they’re comfortable with. About 15% of students are choosing that option to start the school year.

“We have kids who need to be in school, for their health and well-being,” Fisher said. “We want to keep those kids, and our staff and our community safe at the same time.”

The district has also created a “study site” for students who need instruction outside of the days they are able to attend classes. The district hopes that it will be possible to go back to 100% on-site learning, with precautions, by early October.

“I feel confident in our school,” Sturtevant said. “I worry about our state, and our community, because that will be the determining factor as to whether we are successful as a district.”

Implementation of the plan began Aug. 27, when the first wave of students arrived at the doors. Students in preschool through 5th grade attend school five days a week in person. Students in grades 6-8 attend school in person on either Monday/Thursday or Tuesday/Friday, with alternating Wednesday attendance. Students participate in required remote learning the days not attending in person.

Students in grades 9-10 attend school on Monday/Thursday with alternating Wednesdays, and 11-12 grade students attend school on Tuesday/Friday with alternating Wednesdays. High school students will also participate in required remote learning the days not attending in person.

“It’s been a lot different, because we travel with the same group of people for most of the day,” said freshman Maggie Boss, after her first full week of high school. “I’m glad to be back. I think everything is going well, for the most part, and running smoothly.”

Boss said that from what she’s seen, most of the students in high school have not found it difficult to follow the COVID-19 protocols. She said that all of her classmates are social distancing and wearing masks.

“I haven’t seen many people that have a problem with it,” Boss said. “People have been really good about that.”

Among the many health and safety structural precautions, face coverings are required for all staff, and students are required to wear face coverings any time they are in common areas or aren’t able to social distance. Masks are required in hallways, office areas, the cafeteria when not eating, buses, classrooms when not socially distanced, and when in the crowd during indoor sporting events.

“I think the thing I have been most impressed with is how the kids have risen to the expectations that we set for them,” said Marcia DeVore, Lincoln Elementary School principal who spearheaded the re-entry task force. She said that the students have embraced the idea of staying safe and being considerate of the safety of others.

“We have not had issues with face masks. We have not had problems with the safety measures we have put in place,” DeVore said. “The students have accepted them and gone with the flow.”

DeVore said that, like any school year, there has been a lot of excitement getting teachers and students back together.

“Teachers are excited to have kids back in their classrooms,” she said. “There is a lot of learning that is going on, as teachers work to balance the kids who are on campus with the kids who are opting for online learning, but teachers are always excited to be together with our Comet family.”

Ann Prichard, elementary talented and gifted teacher, agreed that teaching students both on site and remotely has resulted in much more work for the teachers this year.

“We’re glad to be doing the extra work, because it means we’re back at school,” said Prichard, who added that her duties have changed with the COVID mitigation. “I’m still a TAG teacher, but it’s really hard to go into elementary buildings and see a bunch of different kids when we’re trying to separate people.”

Instead, Prichard has started the school year teaching fifth-grade language arts, which she has enjoyed so far.

“The masks are fine. I was worried about that, but it doesn’t seem to be a big deal,” Prichard said. “Yes, they like to take them off when they get outside, but the kids seem OK with wearing the masks.”

Middle school band teacher Renee Boss agreed, and said she thought everything was going as well as can be, considering the circumstances.

“I’m really proud of all the students for their efforts in keeping the masks on and using social distancing,” she said. “People doubt kids, and how much they can do — but they really can do this, and they are.”

Boss said it is “wonderful to be part of a family that really helps each other during difficult times,” and said the students’ example was a testament to what people can do, if they put their minds to it.

“I challenge our community to do the same,” she said. “Wear their face masks and social distance, so we can get past this and move on to something that we can consider normal.”