Looking back, Albia Superintendent Kevin Crall sees the last day of regular classes on Friday, March 13 an omen to what was ahead. COVID-19 and the ultimate cancellation of all person to person learning after Friday the 13th seems just about right.
In a system where education professionals measure accomplishment by standardized test scores, attendance and any number of benchmarks, Iowa’s public school system was thrown into near complete chaos when Gov. Kim Reynolds shut down schools the following Monday.
“We had no idea,” said Crall, who has a year under his belt now in understanding the disease, learning to react to its spread, trying to provide an education for about 1,200 Albia Community School District students while protecting faculty and school employees. What many thought would be a few days off, snow days in effect, soon became an all new paradigm of learning and coping.
“By the end of the week we had a plan to disperse Chromebooks to all students K-12,” he said. “Because we didn’t know what COVID-19 could do to faculty and students, we had to have a plan just to get Chromebooks to our students.”
Crall doesn’t even want to think about what would have happened had the school board not embraced 1+1 learning a few years earlier.
“We began building the airplane in the air,” he said, starting with online learning. Crall gives high praise to his administrative staff, Richard Montgomery, Lori Eads, JoEllen Swartz and Billy Strickler, along with ILT (Instruction Leadership Team) members who helped craft the engine and the wings and to his faculty who put plans into effect to keep the plane in the air.
The plan was for online learning for as many students who could access the Internet. Pre-K students were provided packets for learning. Everything was voluntary, based on review and enrichment and everything was non-graded. “Our teachers did a tremendous job providing opportunities for students,” said Crall. Unfortunately, a number of students didn’t embrace those opportunities as fully as they could have.
“There’s no question that progress slowed,” said Crall. “It was almost impossible to introduce new subject matter. But teachers and students did the best they could under the circumstances.”
One of the biggest blows was the cancellation of spring sports, music, drama and extra curricular activities…things that kept many students engaged in school. “That was a blow to a lot of kids,” said Crall.
There was no defense of a record string of boys track championships, a run at the state soccer tournament by a talented group of seniors, no spring musical, no Spring Swing Show, no prom, promenade and After Prom, no senior awards night or commencement exercises, no spring field days for elementary students.
But summer brought some hope as the Iowa High School Athletic Association and girls union put off cancellation of summer baseball and softball and Albia’s administration and school board looked into June and July to hold some sort of Prom and graduation.
The governor ordered public schools to come up with a “Return to Learn” plan by the end of June. “Our administration and faculty spent hundreds of hours planning for scenarios we weren’t even sure would happen,” said Crall. Three plans were created, one for in-person learning, one for hybrid learning and a third for virtual, online learning (something no one in the district wanted to see after doing it in the spring).
Much was learned from the voluntary spring experience; first and foremost that nothing would be voluntary. Attendance and grades would be part of the fall on-line plan.
“We surveyed people in the community, brought in teachers, worked with Public Health to create mitigation plans and most importantly, I think, joined with the four schools in our ADLM Emergency Management group (Appanoose, Davis, Lucas and Monroe) to create similar plans,” said Crall. Eventually Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont, Moravia and Cardinal of Eldon joined in the group moving forward.
Administrators, legal counsel and Public Health met at Honey Creek to get everybody on the same page.
The summer for Crall and his staff was actually hopeful. Baseball and softball teams got to play and the Lady Dees would win the Class 3A state tournament as the baseball team had their best season in several years. Senior Awards Assembly and commencement was held in late June with the help of senior parents and promenade and After Prom (junior parents) happened in July, all events being held on Ironman Field and at the Monroe County Fairgrounds.
“We actually have students and parents who loved having commencement on the football field,” said Crall. All sports and summer events were closely managed using Public Health and state guidelines for cleaning, handling baseball and softballs, fogging dugouts and the like, but in the end there were no “super spreaders” of COVID-19 and that was before mandatory masking took place.
The school invested in hand washing sinks, bought face masks, temperature scanners and fumigation equipment for buses and classes, using the first round of federal relief dollars, about $100,000. The school would eventually gain another $700,000 to fight the pandemic and the learning gap it created. Between $1 million and $1.8 million is coming with the last round of federal relief and Crall said that will be used to further close the learning gaps and also address building needs, nursing needs and the like.
School started in the fall in-person. “My daily routine became looking at the 14-day positivity level and then communicating with my administrators to see if we were going in-person, or hybrid,” said Crall. The administration was thrilled at the response of teachers and students. The school board, while holding lively discussions and having differing opinions, united behind the administration’s efforts.
“We had tremendous cooperation with our teachers,” he said. “Our contract reads that teachers get a duty-free lunch time. That went out the window when we couldn’t use our lunchroom because of social distancing. The stuff you’re seeing on national news with teacher unions refusing to return to school, just didn’t happen here.”
But like virtually every other school in Iowa, Albia slammed into quarantine issues. In October, over one-third of the student population was in quarantine, a number of teachers became sick and contact tracing became an almost full-time job for school nurses and administrators.
COVID-19 hit the junior high, then the high school volleyball team, causing it to end its season just short of tournament play.
The administration and school board decided to make mask-wearing mandatory. “I’m still not convinced mask-wearing was the perfect answer, but we followed Public Health guidelines and it kept us from continuing to mass quarantine students,” said Crall. Again, students and faculty responded positively.
The football team was able to complete its best season in five years and the cross country boys team made it to state (even with some key runners sidelined by quarantine in mid-season).
There was discomfort. Fan attendance was severely limited for watching sports and musical concerts, made somewhat easier by placing videos of the events on Facebook.
Basketball and wrestling started and both basketball teams were flattened by COVID-19 positive tests and quarantines just before Christmas, but Christmas break came just in time for teams to resume after New Years with little disruption. The boys finished with a record 19-3 season, the girls had their best year in three and the wrestling team had the school’s second best dual season in history.
The Large Group and Individual Speech teams had hugely successful seasons, FFA got to do their sub-district and district contests and the high school musical (the one that was in full rehearsal last March but was never performed) was held.
Superintendent Crall is looking at a much more close to normal spring sports and activities schedule. There are no plans to scrap Prom or graduation.
He and his staff are witnessing the damage done by COVID-19 and the need to hybrid and on-line learn. “Realistically, we lost three months of education last spring and quarantines hurt a lot of kids last fall,” said Crall. “A lot of what we’re going to do moving forward is getting kids caught up.” Standardized tests that will be taken shortly will give teachers and administrators an important measure of what needs to be done.
But there have been some positives, according to Crall.
“We banded together to do what was right for kids,” said Crall. “We took some chances that maybe other schools didn’t take and ended up right. We learned we could do things differently and still find success. There are several things that we might continue to do. We found that zoom meetings between other districts can be effective. And frankly, a lot of our parents like having parent-teacher conferences on line, so we might do a combination as we move forward.”
With about 70 percent of the faculty vaccinated for COVID-19, along with many volunteers and substitute teachers, moving forward looks a lot easier. “It’s been a lot of long days, but a pretty quick year,” said Crall. “They say this is a 500-day process and we’re rounding the corner. I think we’re all hoping for normalcy when school starts next year.”
Even that normalcy will look a little different with students and faculty moving into a brand new fine arts wing and a new HVAC system completing the school’s goal for 100 percent air conditioning in the district.