More students returning to in-person learning

Stoughton Area School District students in grades 3-5 were able to return to the classooms on Monday, Jan. 25, the first of wave of the eventual return of all grades by Feb. 8. Here, Fox Prairie Elementary School fifth graders, from left, Drake Swan, Sofia Harkins and Evalynn Hedstrom work on a project.

When Gov. Tony Evers announced the closings of all state schools in a Friday, March 13, 2020, news release, the date certainly turned out to be inauspicious.

What started out as an extended spring break of sorts soon turned into an unrelenting saga, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect health orders to bring life back to “normal.”

And nowhere did the pandemic show its effects more than in schools, which grappled all year with changing health rules and guidance, all while trying to keep students both safe and learning. Looking back a year later, events unfolded quickly.

Stoughton Area School District officials first brought up COVID-19 with families in a March 5 letter, the day the second person in Wisconsin tested positive. The district urged good hygiene, keeping sick children home from school and avoiding close contact with people who might be sick.

One week later, it announced it was working on creating virtual learning for elementary school students, just in case it would be needed.

The next day, the state ordered school districts to close.

Initially, the district canceled all classes and activities from Monday, March 16 through at least April 3, with plans to use virtual learning in the meantime. With the switch to an all-virtual setting, to help fill immediate gaps, the district provided “grab and go” lunches for students, and technology assistance to those in need.

Evers’ order was initially set to end on April 6, but was later extended to the end of the school year, and it became clear that everyone – educators, students and families – was in for a much longer haul.

Adapting on the fly

The first thing that comes to mind about the COVID-19 shutdown for River Bluff Middle School sixth grade teacher Tim Reiser is how quickly it all unfolded on that unforgettable Friday the 13th.

“We were all sitting in a professional development day trying to do a crash course in some tech tools we might use if we had to transition to virtual school at some point,” he wrote the Hub in an email. “By the following Monday, we were trying to implement it all and would do so for the rest of the school year.”

Fox Prairie Elementary School kindergarten teacher Mary Tullis said it was “shocking and surreal” when she heard schools would be closed for a few weeks.

“I never thought it meant that we’d be beginning the new school year virtually,” she wrote in an email to the Hub.

Stoughton High School reading specialist Beth Anderson said her view of being “flexible” took on an entirely new meaning this past year.

“I remember walking out of school a year ago with my ‘classroom’ in my bag and the uncertainty of the situation,” she wrote the Hub in an email.

In the district office, administrative assistant to business services Jenny McKenna usually works behind the scenes, but this year, food service, transportation, communication and reopening logistics were front and center. She said she could never have imagined the amount of conversations she’d end up having.

“And I mean lots of talking with lots of people as we brainstormed, problem solved and explored multiple scenarios for everything we did and all of the things those decisions affected,” she wrote the Hub in an email.

McKenna said an immediate “critical action item” was figuring out how to safely prepare and safely deliver thousands of meals to students over the district.

“We created a plan and quickly changed the plan, realizing it wasn’t working and that we had many more students in need than we were seeing,” she said. “We had families with financial need, emotional need or both.”

To help students’ overall well-being, physical education programs had to adapt, as well. River Bluff Middle School shifted perspective from physical health toward a more holistic approach of well-being, said phy ed teacher Rachel Braund, creating lessons and offering weekly challenges on wellness and personalized self care plans.

Responding to challenges

There were many effects along the way – technological, academic and emotional – and staff had to respond to all of them. An immediate obstacle was ensuring all students could access the curriculum and services, which meant getting devices and hot spots in families’ hands, and teaching them how to use it.

Applications support specialist Kate Heinecke said her biggest challenge has been shifting from onsite staff and student support to meeting those needs teaching and learning from home, and then back again.

“We have had to create entire new systems of support, resources and tools multiple times over this past year as our situation evolved,” she wrote the Hub in an email. “Everyone in our school district has needed to completely relearn how to do our jobs, multiple times over. “

Sandhill Elementary School fifth grade teacher Riley Crone said the past year emphasized the need for building “community” in the classroom, after her once-tight knit group was just “poof — non-existent” without in-person contact in the beginning.

“There were calls after calls, and Zooms after Zooms to try and figure out what was next and how we could reconnect with the students that became impossible to reach,” she wrote the Hub in an email.

Without as much contact with adults at school, Reiser said COVID-19 has really amplified a lot of fear for the unknown in the past year for students, whether it be fear of illness , parents loss of employment, food insecurity or social isolation.

“This reality has been in the back of my mind a lot in the past year, as I think about the reasons a student may not be experiencing academic success or may be missing class,” he said.

High school counselor Andrew Burke said online learning brought to light the importance of interpersonal relationships, as some students who previously turned in homework and participated in class had a much more difficult time virtually.

“We realized how important it is for students to be in class with their teachers to build relationships that encourage them to do their best for themselves and their teachers,” he wrote the Hub in an email.

It’s also been evident that students miss the conversations and connections with each other, said River Bluff principal Trish Gates.

“Middle school is all about learning to navigate social situations,” she wrote the Hub in an email. “This past year has pointed out the significance of face to face interactions with students, staff and families. While the use of technology has been helpful in moving us forward during the pandemic, it’s not the same as being together in person.”

And sports — including practices — were severely limited, and at times were prohibited, by county public health restrictions. For athletics and activities supervisor Mel Dow, dealing with a school year suddenly without athletics or activities was a grind for everyone involved in the district’s many teams and clubs.

“It was like a runner at the starting line and the starter has said ‘ready, set,’ but never said go,” he wrote the Hub in an email.

Silver linings

But despite the challenges and difficulties, there have been positives, particularly in the development of technology as a tool to bring students and educators together.

High school principal Mike Kruse said virtual parent/teacher conferences have been well-received and will likely continue. For Fox Prairie Elementary School principal Krista Huntley Rogers, using technology in new ways to enhance teaching and learning is something district educators will use in the future as well.

“We have the capability to record and share lessons for students that have missed instruction (and) we can share recorded lessons and learn from each other as we implement a new curriculum,” she wrote the Hub in an email.

Kegonsa Elementary and district 4K principal Erin Conrad said students really surprised staff with their “tenacity and independence” in the virtual and hybrid learning models, despite all the new restrictions and changes.

“Even our littlest learners can open up a Chromebook, log on, and navigate to where they need to go,” she wrote the Hub in an email.

There have been social advantages as well, as Conrad said smaller class sizes and limited groups have helped forge new friendship.

“Students are now in classes with kids they might not have known well before,” she said.

Teamwork between students, staff and families has also increased by necessity this past year, said Fox Prairie Elementary reading specialist Marilee Cronin.

“For some students, their team for virtual learning was a combination of a community based day-care site, family and the classroom teacher,” she wrote the Hub in an email. “This year has pushed on that teamwork even more and enhanced those relationships.”

Heinecke said in her role as tech support specialist, the past year has given her the chance to interact with extended families.

“I’ve worked with grandparents, caregivers, parents, aunts, uncles and siblings (on) technology issues and challenges, and give all our families out there so much credit for being there and doing their best to support their learners during this most unusual time,” she said. “It truly does take a village.”

Looking ahead, Conrad said the 2021-22 school year will be a big one for educators, too, as schools return to a more “normal” routine with much work to be done, but also plenty of hope.

“We will have many gaps in learning that we will need to address (but) I know that as a school system we are well poised to do the work,” she said. “After this year, I think I will always say ‘if we could do a year of pandemic schooling, we can do anything!’”

Email Unified Newspaper Group reporter Scott De Laruelle at scott.delaruelle@wcinet.com.