NEWARK – Think back to March of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was just starting to take hold. Schools had to go to virtual learning, spring sports and proms were canceled and graduations looked totally different.
The schools reopening in the fall presented its own set of challenges, and while online education remained, most Licking County schools were eventually able to go back in-person, albeit with a strict set of guidelines from the Licking County Health Department. They got through the fall and winter sports seasons, complete with quarantines and restrictions, and now look forward to spring sports and everything else that was missed out on in 2020.
“Graduations and proms won’t be 100 percent normal, but it will be good to see some of the things students missed out on,” Newark superintendent David Lewis said. “It was the biggest heartbreak, because our students and families have lost a lot.”
“As staff and community members continue to receive vaccinations, I believe we will continue to see a decline in active cases,” said Southwest Licking superintendent Kasey Perkins. “With the newly released guidelines, we will be able to offer our seniors many of the spring activities they deserve to participate in.
“Spring sports have started and are going extremely well. I do not foresee having to make any additional modifications to our current schedule for our students,” Perkins added. “I am looking forward to our seniors having their graduation and prom this year.”
Johnstown superintendent Dale Dickson said while they want students to be able to present their spring play, enjoy a prom, play spring sports and experience an in-person graduation, the plans could change at any time due to spread of the virus. “We all need to continue to be patient and willing to adapt to necessary changes until our nation and world are further down the road to herd immunity against this virus,” he said. “That is just the reality we face.”
Licking Valley superintendent Dave Hile said they are ending the remote learning option after spring break, so they will be back to normal starting April 5. “Because we had teachers teaching both in-person and remote students, we had to delay each school day by one hour to give teachers time to do their planning and work with the remote students,” he explained
“We will go back to our normal schedules and full days of instruction on April 5,” Hile said. “That’s really important because that lost hour every day adds up to a lot of weeks of lost instruction over the course of the school year.”
Starting March 22, Licking Heights will go to a 4:1 model, with students in person four days a week with virtual days rotating among different buildings, superintendent Dr. Philip Wagner said. He noted that 70 percent of school staff has been vaccinated.
“Normally, we would hold graduation at the Schott, and we’re still looking at that option, but there will be restrictions there,” Wagner added. “We’re also looking at graduating at the new high school’s outdoor amphitheater. We hope to hold a prom that offers some semblance of familiarity.”
Obviously, the challenges facing local school districts were many when the pandemic hit.
“The biggest challenge was just the uncertainty.” Lewis said. “Things changed on a daily basis. It was new territory and the unknown. People were scared and wanted answers to things, with how important education is. Plus, the political nature of it. People were divided on the issue.”
“Our biggest challenge was not having information/guidelines to make any decisions until the last minute,” acknowledged North Fork superintendent Scott Hartley. “This was consistent throughout the process, and made any pre planning hard to accomplish. We are still faced with this issue on trying to plan for spring activities, such as prom and graduation.”
Perkins said the biggest challenge this year was preparing to bring all kids back in person. “There were a lot of meetings, constant communication with our families and staff to bring everyone back in a safe manner.” she said. “From ordering PPE, removing additional items in classrooms, spacing, rearranging common spaces, creating contract tracing procedures, and planning for new guidelines to keep everyone safe. The summer and August was definitely the most challenging time of the year.”
Granville superintendent Jeff Brown said the challenges were multi-dimensional. “The guidance evolved over the year, which provided additional challenges and opportunities. We handled it by letting data and common sense drive our decision-making, not fear or emotion,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong. There were many emotional moments, but we always came back to what was best for our students.”
“We have dealt with this pandemic by taking the attitude that we have to learn to safely and effectively live with this virus, not be afraid of it,” Dickson said. “Our staff realized that the reason we went into the field of education was to make a difference in the lives of children, and that there has been no other time in our careers that our children and parents have needed us more.”
Hile said the biggest challenge at Licking Valley was trying to meet the needs of all constituencies. “Parents, students, and staff all had different perspectives and needs throughout the pandemic.” he said. “Some parents, students, and staff wanted to be in school, while others had legitimate and significant concerns about the spread of the virus.
“Even when you seek input from everyone, which we did with surveys, all you do is confirm that people are in different places and circumstances and want different things,” Hile said. “In that case, the survey data just tells you how many people are not going to like your decision. So determining when it was safe to do school in-person was the decision that was most challenging.”
Accomplishments were many for the various districts, even during this trying time.
“Our biggest accomplishment was getting everyone in person when we did, Sept. 28,” Lewis said. “It was better starting the year online. It gave us a chance to work through some things. Some of the larger Columbus-area districts are just now getting back in person. Not being 1-to-1, we did the best with what we had and were able to work through that.”
Perkins said Southwest Licking’s biggest accomplishment was keeping 75 percent of students in person for the majority of the school year. “Our staff and students have worked so hard this year to keep our students in person every day which has been crucial for not only their academic, but their social and emotional needs,” she said.
Dickson said 75 percent of Johnstown students attended school in-person five days per week during the first semester, and 86 percent are currently attending school in-person five days per week in the second semester.
“With the benefit of hindsight, our biggest accomplishment was our decision to create two options and provide five days a week in-person which led to more normalcy for our students,” Brown said. “Our students were able to accomplish their academic, athletic and arts goals. That is why we exist as an organization, to help students reach their potential and develop a love of learning for life.”
Dr. Wagner said he is really proud of the Licking Heights community. “For as fast as we had to pivot, parents did a great job adapting the best they could, as did our staff and students for the things they did to make this work,” he said. “Like bus drivers delivering devices to families. Our student meal program peaked at 11,000 meals per week and we had many donations to help support that. We had one company donate water and we had a wall of water bottles 25 to 30 feet long. Lynd Fruit Farm donated apples.”
Licking Valley staff members went way above and beyond the call of duty to help students in any way possible, Hile said. “From educating them both in-person and remotely, simultaneously, to getting them all the computers and hotspots they needed to learn remotely, to making sure our students had plenty to eat,” he said. “We pursued our vision of every adult helping every child learn and grow every day even during a 100-year pandemic!”
Valley has been open for instruction since Aug.19, with the exception of a couple of weeks around Thanksgiving when they had too many teachers in quarantine to have school.
Now that things are getting somewhat back to normal, a new challenge has been created: making sure that those who fell behind with learning can get back up to speed.
“We would be foolish to think the quality of education hasn’t been affected, and it has impacted some students negatively,” Lewis said. “We’re always concerned about the social and emotional effects. There will be opportunities for extended learning over the summer.”
“Online learning has not been as good as in person, through no fault of the teachers or students,” Dr. Wagner said. “We’ve developed an extended learning plan, and we will start instructing this grading period and not wait until summer. We’ll start with the graduating seniors and go all the way down into every grade, and will hire additional tutors and aides.”
“Teachers who normally used interactive lessons, labs, small group and peer work, were forced to find new ways to meet the diverse needs of their learners.” Perkins said. “Our teachers are rock stars, and I know they went above and beyond to try and minimize the disruptions to their students education this year.
“But the lapse in the continuum of services for many from March 2020 to present day will probably impact a fraction of our student population,” she said. “Like many districts, we are working to implement options for summer services to help those students close the gap, specifically in reading and math.”
Hile said there is no substitute for students being in school, and having to shorten the instructional day by one hour every day for three-fourths of the school year cost students over four weeks of instruction. “This affects all students learning, but especially our youngest students who are trying to learn to read,” Hile stressed.
“They were out of school the last quarter of last school year, a critical time for the coalescence of their learning for the year, and then were deprived of 140 hours of instruction through the first three-fourths of this year,” Hile added. “Some of those students will need a significant amount catch-up growth in reading, if we are to get them reading on grade level by the end of second grade, which is always our goal.”
“The isolation we have all experienced through this pandemic can stifle our motivation,” Dickson said. “While computer technology is a wonderful tool that allows us to expand our knowledge and skills, it is through human interaction and hands on experiences that we apply the knowledge and skills to embed such into our long term memory.”
“Because of our size, and the willingness on the part of our staff, students and parents to patiently work together through the many changes and challenges of this pandemic, we were able to better control the negative impact,” Dickson added. But the district is actively working to identify the students whose learning has been most impacted, and provide them with extended learning opportunities this summer and beyond.
Dickson praised the “common sense” guidelines established by Licking County Health Department commissioner Chad Brown. “He kept us informed of the latest research from a multitude of sources, spoke directly with our staff when needed, monitored our school district COVID-19 cases and necessary quarantines, and organized a very efficient process to vaccinate our staff members who chose to receive the vaccine,” Dickson said. Chad is to be commended for his diligent and patient work throughout this pandemic.”