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Top education stories: COVID-19 impact tops education stories of 2020

Top education stories: COVID-19 impact tops education stories of 2020


From school closures to virtual learning to discussion of what will be next for Chapman School, 2020 had plenty of new challenges for educators, students and parents alike.

1. COVID-19 moves Grand Island schools virtual (March 15)

In early March, Grand Island school administrators all expected COVID-19 to cause schools to move to remote learning, but did not initially know how soon this would happen.

At a joint news conference on March 13, administrators from Grand Island Public Schools, Northwest Public Schools, Grand Island Central Catholic, Trinity Lutheran School and Heartland Lutheran High School spoke about their plans for school in regard to the coronavirus. At the time, all of the administrators pledged to continue to stay open as advised by Gov. Pete Ricketts and Nebraska Department of Education Commissioner Matthew Blomstedt.

Trinity Lutheran Principal Jerrita Staehr said her school would remain open, but that it was a “day-to-day and hour-by-hour situation.”

Two days later, on March 15, the schools reversed course and announced that they would temporarily move to remote learning due to the rise in positive COVID-19 cases. GICC Principal Jordan Engle said at the time that the school received “a plethora of new information” from a group of local physicians, which led to its decision.

“We have said from the beginning this is a fluid situation, and events in the past 48 hours have encouraged us to take action to help slow the spread of COVID-19 across our communities,” GIPS said in a statement. “Because schools have dense populations, closing can prevent students from spreading the virus to others in their families and the community.”

While the schools expected remote learning to only last a few weeks, it ended up going through the end of the spring semester due to the continued rise in positive COVID-19 cases.

2. COVID-19 alters high school graduation ceremonies (May 17)

With the first wave of positive COVID-19 cases reaching its peak at the end of April, Grand Island schools realized they could not safely host graduation ceremonies in May without alterations.

Grand Island Senior High held a virtual graduation ceremony on May 17. The ceremony streamed on the GIPS website, Facebook page and YouTube channel, and also aired live on News Channel Nebraska.

The graduates had their diplomas, caps and gowns, and commencement programs delivered to their homes the week before graduation.

Due to the directed health measures in place at the time, Northwest Public Schools rescheduled its graduation ceremony to July 19. At the ceremony, the graduates’ folding chairs were spaced apart on the Rosencrants Gymnasium wooden floor. Programs, paper-clipped together, were handed out six at a time.

Grand Island Central Catholic delayed its graduation ceremony to July 12. The ceremony was held in the school’s gymnasium before more than 300 people, whose chairs were spaced on the floor in accordance with distancing guidelines. Many of the people wore masks, and everyone entering the gym had their temperatures taken.

Heartland Lutheran held a drive-in graduation ceremony for its 20 graduates on May 17. The ceremony allowed students and families to celebrate together while remaining safe in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Families remained in cars, while the graduating 20 students sat spaced apart.

“We wanted to make sure we had this event for them and we’ve got three or four students who are leaving in early June for the military,” said Chief School Administrator Timothy Leech. “We just wanted to make sure we did it while they were still all together.”

3. Grand Island Public Schools reopens schools with protocols in place (Aug. 13)

In August, Grand Island schools reopened to in-person learning with a number of COVID-19 protocols in place. GIPS implemented its Reminagined model, which it has stayed in since reopening. The model calls for 6- to 10-foot social distancing to be in place whenever possible. Face masks are required for all GIPS staff and students.

When school reopened in August, Walnut Middle School Principal Rod Foley said during passing periods, Walnut staff encourages students to walk single file, spaced 6 feet apart to maintain social distancing.

“We are encouraging social distancing and we have our 6-feet stickers in the cafeteria and different places in the building, trying to make sure that kids are social distancing,” Foley said. “We know that they are not always going to get to stay 6 feet apart, which is why the masks are so important.”

He said Walnut also is requiring students to wash their hands before lunch and during other times of the school day. He added each classroom is sanitized prior to students entering it.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as part of the GIPS Reimagined model of reopening, GIPS also offered Virtual School as an alternative to students and families who may not feel comfortable resuming in-person learning. At the elementary level, students from across GIPS come together at Virtual School. At the middle and high school levels, Virtual School students still are members of their respective schools, but learn virtually.

In her virtual classroom, Maura Hendricksen, a fourth-grade Virtual School teacher who works from home, said her students stand up and say the Pledge of Allegiance each morning, have ways to interact with their classmates and have recess just like they would with in-person school.

To keep her fourth-graders engaged throughout the school day, she said, she does a “20-20-20,” during which students take their eyes off their computer screens for 20 seconds and do different activities during that time to rest their eyes and get them moving.

4. COVID-19 leads to staff shortage at GICC (Nov. 16)

COVID-19 continued to affect schools in November as GICC temporarily moved back to virtual learning due to a lack of staffing because of staff illness.

The school was in virtual learning for six school days — Nov. 17 through Nov. 24 — due to a lack of staffing. Principal Jordan Engle said that when GICC made the decision to temporarily move to virtual learning, 10 staff members were absent due to illness, which made it “almost impossible to operate.”

As part of remote learning, Engle said, GICC students and teachers met via Google Classroom. He said that this past spring, when the school also was in remote learning, students and teachers became “very comfortable” with having class via Google Classroom, which allowed for a smooth, temporary transition back to remote learning for two weeks.

On Dec. 1, following Thanksgiving break, GICC staff and students were back in school with no staff members quarantined due to COVID-19.

5. Northwest board votes to close Chapman School (Feb. 11)

In February, the Northwest Public Schools Board of Education voted 4-2, with board members Mike Shafer and Karl Quandt voting no, to close the school. Advisory board member Becky Rosenlund also voted yes.

The reasons for closing Chapman School centered around the roughly $20,000 per-student cost and the fact the school didn’t show substantial growth in enrollment in recent years. The decision comes a little more than three years since the Northwest board had voted in December 2016 to close Chapman. It later voted to keep the school open as a K-5 facility.

Tami Garbers, who owns Tami’s Daycare near Chapman, said at the time that 75% of her day care kids come from the school, so its closing would have a “huge impact” on her business. She added that the Chapman community would lose its ability to socialize at school activities such as the trunk or treating event, bingo for books, family game night, the summer reading program, muffins with mom and donuts with dad no longer taking place.

“The school is a huge loss for the Chapman community,” Garbers said. “There will not be a lot of people wanting to move here because the school is closed. The value of houses will go down.”

6. Chapman village board buys Chapman School building from Northwest district for $1 (Oct. 7)

In October, both the Chapman Village Board and the Northwest board voted to accept an offer where the school district sold the former Chapman School building to the village of Chapman for $1.

At the village board’s July meeting, when it discussed the potential of buying the Chapman School building, Board Chairman Chris Killin raised concerns about how it could cost the village $100,000 a year to maintain the building, questioning the ability of the village to afford it.

“I hope you know what you are getting yourselves into,” he told the board prior to the vote.

The village currently is looking for ways to repurpose the building and has formed a community committee to give it guidance. At a committee meeting in November, Chapman residents suggested turning the former school building into a community center, apartments and/or office space, and renting out the gym.

7. Doane University closes Grand Island campus (July 17)

In July, Doane University announced it was closing its Grand Island campus at College Park.

Ryan Mueksch, senior communications director for Doane University, said the university’s board of trustees voted in May to halt all on-site undergraduate programs due to years of declining enrollment at the Grand Island campus. The Master of Arts in Management program transitioned online.

Mueksch said Doane-Grand Island students in the undergraduate programs would have the option to take courses online with waived online fees, or take in-person classes at its Lincoln campus.

In an email to campus leaders, a copy of which was provided to The Independent by Audrey Scott, former campus and outreach director of Doane-Grand Island, Paul Savory, provost and executive vice president for Doane University, said the university will no longer have staff or office space at College Park, but is planning to maintain limited classroom space to support the graduate education program, which continues to be offered on-site.

8. University of Nebraska at Kearney returns to College Park (Sept. 26)

In September, it was announced that the University of Nebraska at Kearney will occupy the space at College Park left vacant by Doane University.

UNK is leasing two classrooms and two offices in College Park that will be used by faculty and staff. Its three-year contract, which can be extended for two additional three-year periods, also gives it access to a large auditorium, meeting room and library/media center within the 55,000-square-foot educational facility.

Through its College Park location, UNK will work with Grand Island-area businesses and high schools, Central Community College and other community organizations to provide education and training that prepares students to begin or advance in their careers. This includes academic advising, undergraduate and graduate courses, certificate programs, workshops and seminars.

“We are thrilled to once again be part of the Grand Island community. This remarkable partnership will expand UNK programming within the excellent facilities at College Park, allowing us to meet academic needs in the city and throughout the region,” said Charlie Bicak, UNK senior vice chancellor for academic and student affairs.

9. Dave Hulinsky wins seat on GIPS board by 16 votes (Nov. 10)

In one of Hall County’s closest races, in November, following a recount, Dave Hulinsky defeated Tim Mayfield by just 16 votes for a seat on the GIPS Board of Education.

Hulinsky received 2,065 votes, while Tim Mayfield received 2,049 votes. Incumbent Lisa Albers received 3,398 votes to claim the other Ward B seat.

When asked what he thought about the race being decided by only 16 votes, Hulinsky said, “Wow.”

“I led this thing from the end of the election and was hoping to hang onto it (lead), but if I didn’t, I was ready to congratulate Tim Mayfield, move on from there and try again next time,” he said. “When a group of teachers were contacting me, I said, ‘There’s no way they are going to elect me; there is just no way.’ But I just figured, why not? Let’s try it and see what happens. The worst thing that will happen is I am going to go on with my life as it is.”

As a board member, Hulinsky said, his top priority will be to be a voice for GIPS teachers.

10. Library director Steve Fosselman retires; Celine Swan named successor (Sept. 12)

In September, Steve Fosselman retired as director of the Grand Island Public Library after more than 29 years.

Prior to coming to Grand Island, Fosselman spent 14 years overseeing libraries in Iowa. The first seven years, he said, were spent managing a library in Spencer, Iowa, before moving on to administer a library system of 69 libraries.

Fosselman said he has seen a number of changes at the library during his time as director. When he started his tenure in 1991, the library did cataloging with one computer, but now it is up to about 60 public access computers and many more computers for staff use.

In December, Celine Swan, a 20-year library staff member, was named as Fosselman’s successor as library director.

“I’ve lived here my whole life and I love Grand Island, I love our library, and we’re going to have some great ventures,” Swan said at the time. “I look forward to doing some really cool things in the future.”

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