Virtual education was thrust upon every Grand Island school system a year ago when COVID-19 began spreading rapidly across Nebraska.
Grand Island Public Schools, Northwest Public Schools, Grand Island Central Catholic and Heartland Lutheran High School all announced they would close their buildings to students and staff effective March 16, 2020.
All made rapid transitions to offering remote instruction for students, whose “classrooms“ were typically located somewhere inside their homes.
Each continued to provide remote instruction to students for the rest of the school year.
When the 2020-21 school year began last August, teachers in the four school systems returned to the classroom to teach students.
But Grand Island Public Schools also created a model called GIPS Reimagined that allowed 1,350 students to begin the new year by continuing to learn via remote instruction.
Northwest, Central Catholic and Heartland Lutheran allowed students to remotely access their teachers under one condition. Those students had to miss school because of illness or because they were under quarantine due to exposure to COVID-19. There were no other circumstances during which students could use technology to remotely access classroom lessons.
However, policies for the three school systems may diverge during the 2021-22 school year.
Different districts, different approaches
Northwest Superintendent Jeff Edwards said students who miss class because of illness next year will return to a policy that requires them to make that work up after they are well enough to return to school.
The Rev. Daniel Bremer, president of the Heartland Lutheran High School Board of Education, said that school may well continue using remote learning for students who miss school due to illness.
Central Catholic Principal Jordan Engle said no decision has yet been made on whether the school will continue to use Google Classroom so its students can keep up with school work when they are ill.
Northwest, Heartland Lutheran and Central Catholic each had different experiences with COVID-19 during the current school year.
Edwards said relatively few students this year became sick with COVID-19. Other students missed school because they were quarantined after being exposed to a person with the virus.
The Northwest District is composed of its 9-12 high school and three K-8 buildings.
Edwards said high school students were the primary group allowed to use Zoom and other technology to keep up with school work while they were ill or under quarantine.
He said only a very few of the older students in the K-8 buildings were allowed to access their classes if they had to miss school.
Edwards said district officials do not believe remote learning is appropriate for younger students. That is why accessing classrooms remotely was limited mostly to high school students.
At the time of his interview, Edwards said that 70% of Northwest staff, not just teachers, should be fully vaccinated by March 19. He said he was pleased with those results.
The high staff vaccination rate is another reason he expects the 2021-22 school year to more resemble school from the pre-pandemic era.
When he was interviewed, Bremer did not know what percentage of Heartland High School staff had been fully vaccinated.
But he pointed out that the federal government says it will have enough vaccine on hand by early summer so that everyone who wants to be vaccinated against COVID-19 can do so.
Bremer said each Heartland Lutheran student receives a Chromebook, which he or she uses during the school day. Students then can take their Chromebooks home at night.
Because that policy was already in place, it became very easy for students who were ill or quarantined at home to keep up with their classroom lessons in real time, he said.
He anticipates this system will continue to be used during the 2021-22 school year.
Bremer said only one Heartland Lutheran teacher has contracted COVID-19 so far this school year.
He could not recall how many students have contracted COVID-19, but believes it may have been only a couple.
Bremer said Heartland Lutheran had a much greater problem with students missing school simply because they had been exposed to COVID-19, causing them to be quarantined at home.
He said the typical scenario occurred when the Central District Health Department performed contact tracing and discovered that a Heartland Lutheran student had been exposed to COVID-19.
That student would then have to miss school while they were under quarantine.
Unfortunately, by the time the student had received a notification from the CDHD, he or she had already exposed two or three additional Heartland Lutheran students, Bremer said.
Almost invariably, that exposure occurred while students were eating lunch at the same table in the commons area, he said.
As a result, lunchroom procedures were overhauled. Only a few students ate lunch in the commons area and they were all socially distanced.
The remaining students ate socially distanced lunches in the gymnasium.
“They were scattered all over the gym,” Bremer said.
That ended the problem of students missing school because of exposure during lunch.
Bremer said allowing students to remotely access classroom lessons worked so well this year that he can imagine the same policy continuing. He acknowledged that the school board has held no discussions about continuing the policy.
He said he did not know when that discussion might take place because the board must first address issues with a higher priority.
Engle said Central Catholic students used Google Classroom to stay up with school work.
Central Catholic had a much tougher time with the pandemic than other school systems in Grand Island, especially when COVID-19 cases hit an all-time high for Hall County in November. Central Catholic had to close the school from Nov. 16 through Nov. 30.
“That was because of staff,” Engle said. “At the same time, though, there were days where we had over 60 students who were on the quarantine list. We have an enrollment of 274, so we had a quarantine population of over 20% of our students.”
He said the school’s students used Google Classroom to join Central Catholic classes “every period of every day they were gone.”
Engle said Central Catholic has either 26 or 27 teachers, depending on the time of the year.
During the two-week shutdown of in-person classes, “12 of them were either sick or quarantined, so I was approaching half of my teaching staff who were absent,” he said.
Teachers who were not quarantined came to Central Catholic to use Google Classroom to teach their students, Engle said. Teachers who were quarantined or ill stayed home to use Google Classroom.
Getting teachers’ input
Engle said he applauds teachers for their work during suspension of in-person classes, especially those who were ill. Some were very sick, but continued to teach when it would have been easier to rest and recuperate at home.
He said all teachers committed themselves at the start of the year to keeping their classes going.
Although Google Classroom worked well this year, Engle wants to talk to teachers about whether to use the technology next year to help students whenever they miss school.
He said he wants to hear from teachers about “what worked and what didn’t work.” Teachers must tell him “what we would do differently” if the school encounters a similar situation in the future.
“That’s how we get better,” he said.
In-person education is vital
Edwards, Engle and Bremer said none of their schools will permit their students to use remote learning simply because today’s technology makes it possible.
Edwards said students need to be in the classroom — not just because of their educational needs, but because being at school with teachers and friends meets their social, emotional and psychological needs.
Engle agreed, saying, “at the end of the day, in-person instruction is just more effective.”
He said he wants to keep and expand one aspect from this COVID-19 school year.
Teacher Dawnell Glunz brought her trained therapy dog, Shire, to Central Catholic at the start of the year. Shire has been at school ever since.
“There were a lot of good things that happened,” said Engle, who noted Shire helped students of all ages and also staff members.
He said Central Catholic’s staff next year will include a second person who owns a fully-trained therapy dog who will join Shire at Central Catholic.