A year ago, teachers in all of Grand Island’s school systems were teaching their students remotely.

The COVID-19 pandemic darkened classrooms as suddenly as flipping a light switch to “off.”

One day, officials from Grand Island Public Schools, Northwest Public Schools, Grand Island Central Catholic and Heartland Lutheran High School were all saying they would remain open.

Two days later, they all announced they were closing immediately, effective March 16, 2020.

In those early days, it helps to recall that many people were calling the disease the “novel coronavirus.” The virus was brand new, meaning nobody knew how infectious, or how deadly, it could be.

Over the next several months, knowledge grew and all four systems reopened their buildings for face-to-face instruction for the 2020-21 school year.

But GIPS, with an enrollment of just over 10,000 students, continued to offer remote learning for the current academic year under the title of “GIPS Reimagined.”

Remote learning continues

Superintendent Tawana Grover said the district is committed to continuing GIPS Reimagined next school year as well.

Grover said last spring the pandemic made the district offer remote instruction to students to protect them and GIPS teachers from contracting COVID-19.

She is certain the pandemic played an important role in the number of students who were signed up for remote instruction during the current school year.

The superintendent said parental concern about COVID-19 will impact how many students enroll in the program for the coming year.

But Grover said she sees remote instruction for the 2021-22 school year in an entirely different light.

“This is not a COVID model,” she said.

District officials have learned a lot about virtual education because it has seen how much students have learned from remote instruction last spring and how much students have learned this school year when enrollment in remote instruction was a choice.

“I think students have already proven they can be successful in this model,” Grover said.

Still, parents’ concern about COVID-19 is reflected in the changing enrollment numbers for remote learning over the course of this school year.

The online portion of GIPS Reimagined began the school year with 607 remote learners in K-5, 365 remote student learners in 6-8, and 378 remote learners at Grand Island Senior High, for a total of 1,350 students, according to Toni Palmer, GIPS chief of leadership and learning.

Students from kindergarten through eighth grade are on a trimester grading system, while Senior High students are on a semester system.

Remote learner enrollment at all three grade levels changed at the end of the first grading period.

Palmer said just under 400 K-5 students and 147 6-8 students stayed on as remote learners for their second trimester.

She said 272 GISH students were enrolled as remote learners for the second semester.

Parents’ concerns have faded

Palmer said she believes parents began the school year uncertain about how safe their children would be with face-to-face instruction in the classroom. Parents were especially wary if they had children with underlying health conditions.

That uncertainty seemingly faded with time because the number of students enrolled in remote learning dropped.

“Parents wanted to see how the (district’s safety) protocols worked. They saw things were going OK and if they felt like it was safe, they would send their kids back on-site,” Palmer said.

For the most part, GIPS tried to prevent additional K-8 transfers from remote learning to classroom learning between the second and third trimesters, she said. Likewise, the district did not want GISH students transferring back to the classroom once the second semester had started.

Palmer said the district had to consider whether there was enough classroom space to accommodate students who wanted to move from remote learning back to in-person school.

Student transfers also affected staffing, she said. Transfers caused GIPS to move 10 K-5 teachers from remote instruction to classroom teaching assignments.

Teachers’ concerns addressed, too

At the beginning of the school year, administrators and teachers were just as uncertain about how COVID-19 might affect the district’s ability to provide face-to-face instruction, said Ashley Tomjack, GIPS director of curriculum, instruction and professional learning.

Tomjack said the entire GIPS teaching staff, including all substitute teachers, received training at the start of this school year on how to teach students remotely.

Teachers were divided into grade-level groups — K-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12 — to learn age-appropriate methods for remote instruction, she said.

The training was provided for all GIPS teachers because nobody could predict how the pandemic might affect the district’s long-term ability to offer classroom instruction.

No one knew if a second spike in COVID-19 cases might force the entire district to return to remote instruction.

Indeed, the Central District Health Department, whose coverage area includes Hall County, did report a second wave of COVID-19 cases that started in mid-October and rose to an all-time peak for Hall County by mid-November.

That spike never ended the school district’s ability to deliver classroom instruction, even though Grover said the COVID-19 spike caused a corresponding increase in staff and student absences.

She said the Thanksgiving holiday gave students and staff a chance to socially distance. The holiday break, plus the Grand Island City Council late November vote in favor of a temporary, citywide mask mandate, allowed GIPS to make it through that rough patch.

Regular training for long term

Tomjack said training about remote instruction was not provided to GIPS teachers just to prepare for a worst-case pandemic outbreak scenario.

Training has continued throughout the year, she said. The continued training was provided so teachers could provide high-quality remote instruction.

K-5 teachers had training every week, while 6-12 teachers had training about remote instruction every other week.

Natalie Harden, who taught first grade through remote instruction, was one of the teachers who received that weekly training.

Harden admitted she approached remote instruction with trepidation last spring.

“I was not tech-savvy,” she said. “I didn’t use a lot of technology. I was very apprehensive last spring. I thought, ‘I might even have to take a leave of absence’ because I wouldn’t be able to handle it.”

But, Harden added, “Once I got into it, it really seemed to work for me. I think for one thing my personality is a good match. I’m very well-organized. The other part of my personality is creative.”

Harden said learning a whole new way to teach subjects that she has presented to children for years “sparked my creativity.”

Tomjack said GIPS contracted with a Nashville, Tenn., teacher who has more than 10 years of experience in providing remote instruction to students.

Harden said she and other K-5 teachers used the Nashville teacher’s expertise during the early part of the school year.

More recently, Harden and the other K-5 remote teachers watched videos and took classes from Whitney Flower, principal for GIPS Virtual Elementary, so they could tailor their training to meet the needs of their remote students.

Keeping students connected during the year

Flower will add the job of being principal at Stolley Park Elementary next year. GIPS wants K-5 remote learners and their parents to view Stolley Park as their physical home.

K-5 remote students will be encouraged to use the Stolley Park library. Those students and their parents will be encouraged to attend Stolley Park family celebrations.

GIPS officials want all remote learners to feel plugged into the school district regardless of their grade level.

For example, high school remote learners must be enrolled in one of the GISH academies, just like the students who are attending classes at Senior High.

Harden said the key to successful remote instruction is building a good relationship with students “so kids really connected and felt they were part of the school, part of the classroom, even over a Zoom meeting.”

“I love my job. They (students) love coming to Zoom,” she said. The key to successful remote instruction is having students “loving what they’re doing, and wanting to be there, and being engaged.”

Grover said having parents see remote learning in the same positive light will determine whether virtual education becomes a permanent part of the district.

The deadline for enrolling for remote education for next school year is April 1. Palmer said enrollment numbers for middle school and high school students are a little nebulous so far.

Grover said 111 elementary students are signed up for remote learning next year. That districtwide enrollment shows room for growth.