ELDON — The boxes clutter the cramped hallways at Cardinal High School, the thick smell of a new school year in the air. The teachers and staff are getting ready, and the students are itching to go back.
But will anyone be ready, really?
The last five months have been anything but normal because of COVID-19, and that lack of normalcy and unpredictability lingers just days before area schools open for the 2020-21 school year. Some schools are requiring face coverings, others recommending or encouraging them. Hand sanitizer is supplied in bulk.
And while that may be all well and good, one of the underlying concerns about reopening isn’t whether students will learn in class or remotely. It’s their well-being, considering many haven’t seen their friends and classmates since March.
“There’s so much in the news about getting the virus, how this will look and how it’ll be different,” said Kathy Utterback, a Great Prairie AEA social worker who is affiliated with the Cardinal and Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont school districts. “That’s probably weighing on (the kids’) minds a little bit. And, just getting back into a routine of things. They haven’t been in a seven-hour attention-span day for five or six months. That’s probably going to be hard, that endurance.”
No one knows for sure how long it will take students to get acclimated to the school environment, but one thing seems to be certain — kids will adjust at different paces.
“I think we’re going to have to almost teach them how to go to school again, and how to get the best out of the experience at school,” Evans Middle School principal Aaron Ruff said. “I also worry about how they will get to school. Sleep is a big deal to middle school students, so I’m worried about schedules, sleep patterns.”
Setting a good example
With schools stringent in their return-to-learn plans when it comes to hygiene, students are expected to follow the guidelines strictly. That starts at the top.
“We’re going to have to do a lot of modeling,” said Jessica Dawdy, a counselor at Evans Middle School. “We have to make sure they’re seeing what we want them to be doing.”
Ruff agreed and is optimistic that kids will do whatever it takes to follow the necessary protocols.
“I think it’s an opportunity for kids because they’ve probably missed school and they’ve probably not before,” he said. “So I think they’ll be more willing to do different things (hand sanitizer, masks) because they know if they do those things, they get to go to school.”
Megan Wetrich, also a counselor at the middle school, said setting expectations and laying the groundwork early is important.
“It will be an adjustment for our kids and all staff. It’s teaching about what those expectations are and knowing the importance of why we’re doing what we’re doing,” she said. “Our advisory time is kind of like homeroom, and we’re going to be spending that time, and all-day actually, building those connections to students and talking through those expectations quite a bit.”
Checking in, checking out
Ruff said Evans will begin the school year with approximately 20 percent of the student body going through the school district’s remote-learning option, so not every student will be in the school.
However, Wetrich discussed a way the school plans to meet the needs of their students, particularly those in the classroom.
“In our advisory classes, we have what we call the ‘Second Step’ program,” she said. “The first unit of which is called ‘Community Rebuilding,’ and the first lesson is on returning to school. What are the challenges? What are they nervous about? The second lesson is about values, how those changed during this crisis, and then, how to be a good friend and how to be a good friend and classmate.”
Cardinal counselor Michelle Edwards, who oversees fifth through 12th grade, said it is important to keep tabs on all students as well.
“I know the middle school has a ‘check-in/check-out’ staff person when they feel nervous or scared without going straight to the counselor first,” she said. “That’ll be part of their routine every day. We’ll push out an assessment to all of our families (preschool through 12th) so they can identify things, any concerns and things they want to get set up for their kids.”
The importance of being proactive
Cardinal has two counselors to cover 13 grades, from kindergarten to 12th grade. Yet, they take pride in making the return to school as safe as possible.
However, it all starts with following the guidelines set forth in the district’s return-to-learn plan.
“Our teachers are working their tails off to make sure things are how they need to be and the students are safe. That’s their No. 1 priority right now,” said Abbey Shelman, who is a K-4 counselor at Cardinal and K-6 counselor at Pekin. “They’re working really hard to make sure it’s still a warm and inviting place where kids want to be while also making sure they’re safe.
“Every classroom does a morning meeting, which is a relationship-building tool for teachers and their students. Every teacher takes pride in building those relationships with their students.”
River Hills Community Health Center mental health therapist Tammy Loerzel acknowledged that Cardinal has been at the forefront of safety during the pandemic.
“It’s very important to be proactive, but Cardinal is very unique in having a plan. When we get back, I think we’re going to see kids who didn’t have anxiety before have anxiety, and that’s perfectly understandable,” Loerzel said. “When I do therapy, I will tackle it the same way because if I make a big deal out of it, it’ll just increase the kids’ anxiety. We have to be very proactive.”
While there is plenty of apprehension about sending children into school with the novel coronavirus showing no signs of relenting, school officials highly recommend reading each district’s return-to-learn plan. However, being prepared is only half the battle.
“I think we have to start building routines now, having conversations about school,” Edwards said. “I think we have to talk about what they kids are excited about or what they’re nervous about, and I think our school is really good about sending postcards and emails to parents and making those connections.”
Loerzel agreed that communicating now is important, because the fears of parents and children can be different.
“I think sometimes as adults we assume our kids are worried and anxious about the same things we are,” she said. “Ask them what they’re worried about. A lot of times it’s not such a big deal to them, and it is to us.”
Utterback stressed the importance of reading each district’s return-to-learn plan. Some are lengthy, but all are invaluable.
“All of our school districts have worked hard to figure out the best plan for their school. A lot is wait-and-see,” she said. “We don’t know until we actually get there and see what it looks like. Just making sure everyone knows the rules and expectations, and try to put out as many facts as we know at the time. It could be something different every day.”
The challenge awaits
Even the best-laid plans can go awry at any point. Schools could be in session a few days, or a few months, or could make it through the year. They may have to shut down and go to a hybrid or virtual learning plan at a moment’s notice. However, the state has made anything other than face-to-face learning a high bar to clear, and the intention is for face-to-face interaction for as long as possible.
“I think to make the year successful, we’re all going to have to be flexible, and that includes parents, the community and students,” Ruff said. “This is everyone’s first year really. The situation is very fluid, almost hour-to-hour right now. So we’re just going to have to roll with the punches and do what’s best for our students and teachers. Hopefully, we’ll be here all year and be successful.”
Even though beginning a new school year in a pandemic has its concerns, Utterback was optimistic.
“There will be a learning curve for everyone,” she said. “Everybody is relearning a new way, but I feel like we’ve been doing that every day since March. I think people have learned to be resilient, and that’s awesome.”