Inside one Iowa high school's shift to required, digital learning to get through coronavirus closures

Prairie High School one of several in the corridor starting 'required education services' next week

The school board room and district offices overlook the new cafeteria at Prairie High School in Cedar Rapids on Monday,
The school board room and district offices overlook the new cafeteria at Prairie High School in Cedar Rapids on Monday, Jan. 13, 2020. Renovations and expansion at the high school will be completed this year and were funded with a bond issue passed in 2016. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — In normal times, the upperclassmen in Amy Sandau’s chemistry classes would be mixing acids and bases in her high school classroom.

Instead, Prairie High School students have been shut out of school for more than a month due to the coronavirus pandemic. On Friday, Gov. Kim Reynolds announced no Iowa students would return to class this school year.

Kept apart, teachers at the high school, part of the College Community School District, are transitioning to online lessons the Iowa Department of Education expects will be “equivalent in effort and rigor to typical classroom work.”

The state gave schools two options as they provide students with continuous learning opportunities. Most chose to provide “voluntary” opportunities, and will make optional work available to students who cannot count for credit.

Schools, such as Prairie High, that opted to start “required” education services have to ensure lessons are accessible to all students and report attendance, and teachers can grade and assign credit for students’ work.

Prairie High School will start providing required services Tuesday.

While she’s eager to find and fix any issues that arise, Sandau knows fully digital learning won’t be without its challenges. Combining volatile chemicals, for example, will be cut from her curriculum now that students will be completing lessons from their homes.

“As a science teacher, I have a unique set of challenges that come with distance learning,” she said. “Usually that hands-on learning is what solidifies the concepts for students.


“Instead we’re doing videos of the lab, online simulations — it’s not the same, but it’s the best we can do.”

Teachers are getting instructions on creating videos and instruction during a day of professional development Monday, Principal Karla Thies said.

“It’s a bummer, but exciting as well because it’s all brand-new,” said Thies, who is in her first year as principal. “A lot of times, teachers don’t get brand-new learning for us.”

Prairie High has been one-to-one with online devices for years, and most teachers already have a bank of digital content to rely on while the building is closed. Still, teachers are adjusting to teaching full-time online.

To make up for one missed chemistry experiment, Sandau’s colleague, Clinton Schmitz, filmed a YouTube video this week about making ice cream in a bag — demonstrating how adding rock salt to ice lowers its freezing point and can transform milk, sugar and vanilla into the dessert.

“We’re learning through this just as much as the students are. This is new for everybody,” said Sandau, who has taught in the College Community School District for six years.

“In the classroom you have your own obstacles, but outside — when you can’t form those relationships with students, and you can’t help students at all sorts of times of the day — it’s an added obstacle.

“The idea that I can’t just put on the whiteboard how to do something, that changes things.”

Learning plans will vary

Required learning in schools throughout Iowa will vary, said John Speer, chief administrator of the Grant Wood Area Education Agency. The agency provides services to about 50 public and private schools in Eastern Iowa.

“I would venture to say that none of the plans will be identical,” Speer said. “What I can confidently say is districts that are doing ‘required’ are not thinking of a student sitting on Zoom from 8 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon.”

Instead, he imagines teachers will check in with students daily or every other day to see how they’re progressing toward standard bench marks and teach occasionally on video chat platforms such as Zoom or Google Hangouts.

“It’s not good practice to have someone sit in front of the computer for seven hours in a virtual setting,” he said. “You’ll see a range of things happening — some doing large group meetings via Zoom and some doing almost completely individualized paths.”

More than a dozen high schools in the agency’s region are starting required services exclusively for high school students next week.

“They see that as a quicker transition with students who are more cognitively ready to handle that,” he said.

The high school in the College Community School District is shifting to required learning with high schools in the Central City, Linn-Mar, Marion, Mid-Prairie, Solon, Washington and Williamsburg districts, according to the agency. Middle-schoolers in the Central City district also will transition to required services.

The Iowa City Press-Citizen reported Friday that Iowa City high schools also plan to shift to required learning at the end of the month.

Among private schools, Xavier, Regina, Hillcrest Academy, Cedar Valley, Isaac Newton, Trinity Lutheran, Heritage, Scattergood and Lutheran Interparish are all starting required services for at least some students.

‘A dry run’

Prairie High School teachers have been providing voluntary lessons to students since closures started in March. Some of Sandau’s students engaged with the work more than others.


“I think the students are bored enough now that they’re ready to kick it into gear,” she said.

Without required learning, she had worried about her 10th and 11th grade students mastering the concepts they’ll need if they want to move onto more advanced chemistry classes.

“In high school, it’s a lot harder to make up stuff if you have a three-month missing chunk. In elementary school, if you know your new third-graders had this COVID thing, it’s easy to do more review,” she said.

“In high school, if they miss a three-month chunk of chemistry, they’re not going to make up for that in English the next semester.”

She’s concerned about students who will need to balance taking care of their siblings and working part-time jobs at Hy-Vee on top of homework, but she’s excited she and her colleagues are sorting out digital learning sooner rather than later.

“What happens if in the fall we can’t open? We’ve had an awesome dry run at doing this,” she said.

Prairie students won’t be required to log into classes at a set time, and Sandau plans to schedule check-ins with students at their convenience. At home with her own children — a pre-schooler and a second-grader — she plans to prep lessons in the evenings and in her spare moments.

With schools shuttered through the school year, Speer, of the Grant Wood Area Education Agency, said many educators are worried students’ knowledge will backslide — much as it does over three-month summer breaks.


“If nothing else, we’re trying to keep students actively engaged in learning, reading, critical thinking, so we can lessen what type of regression we might see in an extended closure,” he said.

“This very well could be four or five months, when we look at mid-March to mid-August.”

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