CORONAVIRUS

Cedar Rapids teachers, families prepare for two weeks of virtual learning

'I'll do what it takes to be back and teach in my own room,' Washington High teacher says

Teacher and cross-country Coach Willis Harte (right) says goodbye Wednesday to his runners, uncertain when he'll see the
Teacher and cross-country Coach Willis Harte (right) says goodbye Wednesday to his runners, uncertain when he’ll see them again, at Washington High School in Cedar Rapids. The group enjoyed a final run together before the district went into two-weeks of virtual learning starting Thursday, suspending athletic activities. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Washington High School’s Willis Harte, who teaches Russian and geometry, was looking forward to seeing students in-person for the first time in eight months after the school’s derecho damage was repaired and students were expected to return Monday.

But with Cedar Rapids experiencing an exploding community spread of the coronavirus, the district made the decision earlier this week to move students to virtual learning for two weeks — once again delaying their return to classrooms at Washington High, which has been in virtual learning since the Cedar Rapids Community School District’s first day of school Sept. 21.

“I think there’s a huge risk not having kids back in the classroom, but that risk pales in comparison to the potential risks if we don’t do it right,” Harte said.

The district was granted a waiver Thursday morning from the Iowa Department of Education for two weeks of virtual instruction. Students started online learning at all grades and schools Thursday and are expected to return to in-person instruction Nov. 30.

All in-person activities and athletics also were suspended for the period.

SCHOOLS GO VIRTUAL: Here’s where area school districts stand on virtual instruction

A significant rise in COVID-19 spread has led to an increase in staff absenteeism, impacting teachers and other departments including transportation, Superintendent Noreen Bush said in an email Thursday to families.

As of Nov. 6 in the district, 91 students and 69 staff were in quarantine and 21 students and 45 staff had tested positive for COVID-19. The district updates its numbers every Friday.

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“It’s really bad, and it’s worrisome. I’d love to be back here if we can wearing masks and face shields. I’ll do what it takes to be back here and teach in my own room and have the kids back in school,” Harte said.

But Iowa has not been “doing it right” when it comes to following mitigation measures for the virus, including wearing masks, social distancing and suspending large gatherings, he said.

“I think it comes down to priorities. Is it more important for kids to be in school or for me to be out on a Friday night at a restaurant?” he asked.

Harte feels lucky to have gotten to coach boys’ cross-country in-person. After the season ended in October, the team started informally running optional winter miles after school.

This, too, will be suspended while the district is in virtual instruction.

Harte’s daughter, who attends school a few blocks from their house at Iowa City High School, is starting virtual learning next week as the Iowa City Community School District was also granted a waiver from the state for two-weeks of online learning.

“As a parent, I’m disappointed,” Harte said. “I think it’s quite clear it’s not what we want to do — but it’s what we have to do right now because we didn’t beat COVID earlier in the year.”

Washington High freshman MaKenna Hetrick, 14, said she was looking forward to going back to school Monday in the hybrid learning model and is “kind of mad” that she has to continue virtual-only instruction for now. She has a younger sister in elementary school who has been able to go to class in-person every day until now. MaKenna said she wants that opportunity. too.

“I’m just frustrated. You see other communities with mask mandates, but we’re sitting in Iowa and we don’t (have one),” MaKenna said before Gov. Kim Reynolds earlier this week mandated masks for indoor groups of 25 people or more and outdoor groups of 100 people or more.

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Nic Hartmann is a parent to two students at Johnson STEAM Academy, which started virtual learning Tuesday because of staffing shortages. Hartmann’s children, Mari, 9, and Rosi, 6, were attending school in-person until this week because of their parents’ work schedule.

Now, the family has to make virtual learning work, trading off days Hartmann and his wife go into their respective offices so someone can stay home with the kids.

“It takes proactivity for the parent, and that’s really hard,” Harmann said. “We recognize there’s a certain amount of privilege. We have a good Wi-Fi signal, flexible work schedules. But I know some people aren’t in that boat, and my heart breaks for them more than anyone.”

The family is making plans to stay home for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.

“It’s absolutely not worth it” to head out, he “I’d rather have a longer life than a short-term pleasure. People are cracking, and the people we know giving into that cracking are the ones who are getting sick.”

“I have a friend whose 7-year-old asked why no one is doing the right thing” by wearing masks, Harmann said. “That’s a really hard question to answer as a parent.”

Comments: (319) 398-8411; grace.king@thegazette.com

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