When students left school on the afternoon of Friday, March 13, they were looking forward to a week off for spring break. No one knew that it would be the last day of in-person school for the rest of the school year.
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of school buildings for the rest of the year, school administrators were forced to scramble – at times improvising – to deliver instruction from a distance.
“No one could have predicted this situation, and I felt our staff – both staffs – hit the ground running and really paved a way for our students to learn at home,” Highland and Lone Tree Superintendent Ken Crawford said. “No one has been trained to do any of this and everyone jumped in and didn’t complain – just worked hard for their students.”
School districts had to quickly put together new learning plans in the face of rapidly changing guidelines from the state.
“The most difficult aspect of the whole situation, especially at the beginning, was the ever-changing nature of the guidance we were receiving,” Mid-Prairie Superintendent Mark Schneider said. “I totally understand that there were so many unknowns to deal with, but at times it seemed things would change daily, sometimes even hourly.
“At first it was hard to build processes and policies that created consistency and stability because of the ever-changing nature of the information we were receiving.”
Crawford said, “The challenges were how much information and expectations changed on an almost daily basis. From the Governor’s office to the Department of Education – something was said one day and then the next day – expectations changed and that required all of us to redo all the work from the previous day.”
Hillcrest Academy Principal Dwight Gingerich said that the experience from the previous school year, when school was canceled for nearly half of February due to snow, ice and sub-zero temperatures, helped guide decisions this year.
“That seemed incredible, and we had to find creative ways to make up the time missed,” Gingerich said. “Perhaps that got us somewhat ready for this year, which obviously had us missing even more school, and then needing to be even more creative and resourceful to make it work to finish the year with continuous learning.”
All three administrators expressed their pride for how all of their staffs pitched in and adapted.
“I am extremely proud of the way the Mid-Prairie staff and community responded,” Schneider said. “I saw some teachers do some truly amazing and creative things. Paraprofessionals, secretaries and school nurses pitched in and helped at a moment’s notice.”
Crawford said, “Meeting all of the challenges over Zoom and building leadership skills in this environment is kudos to both schools. No one was in their comfort zone and yet – everyone helped, encouraged, brainstormed and put in extra hours to make sure students got the best out of a bad situation.”
Gingerich said everyone pitched in to come up with ways to best serve the Hillcrest students.
“I am so proud of our faculty and students for the efforts put forth to get things done in the fourth quarter,” Gingerich said. “Our weekly faculty meetings were really important times for us to share ideas, to share our successes and challenges, and to learn from one another.
“The receptive nature and spirit of our staff to learning and sharing ideas with one another was awesome to witness, as we were learning to do this together on the fly.”
That appreciation was extended to students, parents and the community at large.
“Mostly, I am grateful to our school community, including parents, for their flexibility and keeping at it when it was not easy,” Gingerich said. “I am grateful to our seniors, the Class of 2020, for the leadership, perseverance and commitment they have demonstrated to the end.”
Schneider said, “This situation made me more fully realize how truly blessed I am to live and work in this community. The response was fantastic and truly modeled the saying that we are ‘all in this together.’”
Facing the challenges presented this year offered the chance to learn some new lessons.
“This period of time allowed teachers to try out new and possible better methods of teaching, methods that could be brought back to the regular classroom,” Schneider said. “I hope that the improved parent-teacher-school communication that was needed to make distance learning work this last two and one-half months carries over to the future when things become more normal.”
Gingerich said, “We know that each student learns differently, and online learning can make the challenge of differentiated instruction even greater. That is something we must continue to work at, and it is my hope that many of the learnings we had this year will aid us to become better for next year, whether we are online or in person, so some of both.”
All agreed that the 2019-20 school year will be one that they will never forget.
“This is my 39th year in education and my 19th year as a superintendent,” Schneider said. “As a teacher, principal and superintendent, this has easily been the most challenging school year I have had.
“I’ll take the most difficult ‘snow call’ day and trying to figure out how to make up 11 school days missed because of inclement weather – like last year – over the challenges faced this year any time.”
Crawford summed it up saying, “No one will forget this year and it will be one of those years people will always refer to. Staff will tell stories to younger staff members about the year we had the fourth quarter wiped out by a pandemic and they taught school from home. There will be a lot of smiles and a lot of frustrations with those stories.”