Rural education: Few students, but many what-ifs

Like other rural schools, South Hamilton struggles

A banner bears the names of all members of the Class of 2021 on a hallway in South Hamilton, a district of 700 K-12 stud
A banner bears the names of all members of the Class of 2021 on a hallway in South Hamilton, a district of 700 K-12 students in the heart of Iowa. (John Naughton/IowaWatch)

JEWELL — At 3:20 p.m. on a Monday, a voice booms through the public address speakers at South Hamilton School: “Everybody mask up.”

It’s a reminder of how much changed this school year.

The South Hamilton district — 704 pre-K through 12th-grade students from the rural towns of Ellsworth, Randall, Stanhope and Jewell in the center of Iowa — tackled challenges facing other rural schools since COVID-19 came to Iowa in March and shut down schools.

“You can’t handle the ‘what ifs,’ because there are too many of them,” said longtime activities director Todd Coy.

Statewide, the coronavirus positivity rates have fluctuated. More than 290,000 Iowans have tested positive for the virus, according to state data, and more than 4,000 Iowans have died as a result of the virus.

In South Hamilton, students feel the effects. Some are academically slipping, officials said.

Student progress took a big hit during the spring, Superintendent Ken Howard said. The fall semester began with teachers going over material that would have been covered last year.

“The goal,” said Howard, who has served as superintendent at South Hamilton for seven years, “is to get kids to where they should be by the end of the school year.”

Some students have adapted well to online learning or classrooms that have spread out chairs — but others have not, principals said.


“Some kids are getting it great, others are slipping behind,” elementary Principal Steve Neuberger said.

Several students transitioned from on-site to remote learning due to health concerns.

The full picture on academics won’t be clear until later, but there are signs statewide of a decline in literacy in kindergarten through third grade, according to the Iowa Department of Education. Schools were able to screen most students for literacy, said Heather Doe, the department’s spokeswoman. The biggest decline overall was in first grade.

The virus brought financial changes. An estimated $100,000 in state funding, for instance, left South Hamilton when 17 students decided to home school. The district gained about $50,000 in federal funding through the federal CARES Act for school protective gear and other equipment.

At South Hamilton, classes resumed in person Aug. 24.

The district weathered a September outbreak that sickened 117 kids who tested positive or were exposed to someone who did, according to school officials. So the school shifted to a hybrid learning plan until the numbers dropped the following week. About half of the students were from the elementary building and half from the middle/high school.

On Dec. 22, the last date data was available on the district’s website, one of the 700 students was quarantined. On Jan. 3, the Hamilton County positivity rate over the past 14 days is 17.6 percent, meaning that less than a fifth of residents tested had the virus, according to state public health data.

Shelby Fonken, the school nurse since August, sees this lost year roll by day after day due to absences.

“Some days could be zero, but other days 20,” Fonken said. “I feel bad for these kiddos. When they’re positive, they’re missing out.”

Sophomore Kate Barkema and her parents, Jodi and Dennis, know how awful COVID-19 can be.

Kate, a South Hamilton sophomore, tested positive in September and was isolated in her bedroom for 14 days. Her parents came down with the virus in October.


On Sept. 14, Kate woke up with a high fever and other symptoms that were similar to mononucleosis, said Jodi, a health care worker. A rapid test showed she was positive.

Kate, who played softball and volleyball, lost 6 pounds over the next week. She still hasn’t regained her full sense of taste. She attended school online during her isolation. She missed the school’s homecoming.

Mid-September recorded a spike, 17 percent of students, in the school’s rate of COVID-19-related absences.

Kate’s volleyball team had to quarantine, too. But the Hawks were able to return to play and finished the season.

When Kate returned to school, curious students questioned her.

“Right when I came back, I was one of the first people who’d had it,” Kate said.

Both Jodi and Dennis are essential workers and are careful.

Jodi, who works eight hours a day wearing personal protective equipment, woke up Oct. 27 with a fever, body aches and an inability to taste.

Dennis works at 3M in Ames and is surrounded by protective plastic and plexiglass. He takes care of his 76-year-old mother, Judy, in Jewell, and knew he had to be tested.

I definitely didn’t want my mom to get it,” he said. He tested positive, but was asymptomatic.

The family said they believe South Hamilton has done a good job protecting students.


“They’re doing the best they can, with the knowledge that they’ve had,” Jodi said.

The Jewell couple participated in a clinical trial for remdesivir, a drug being considered as a COVID-19 treatment.

Across Iowa, other rural schools tackle these same what-ifs.

North Polk High School in Alleman, a school of about 500 students north of Des Moines, installed plastic dividers resembling revolving doors at its cafeteria tables.

Student activities, from band and choir concerts to athletic events, are being livestreamed with greater frequency.

Some smaller Iowa districts are using their size to their advantage for social distancing.

Ar-We-Va of Westside, for one, has about 65 high school students.

“With our small class sizes, we’ve been able to mitigate easier than some larger schools,” Ar-We-Va Superintendent Jeff Kruse said.

Another South Hamilton student, eighth-grader Jagger Ferrie, wants his life back.

He dreams about earning a black belt in karate. He’s been a brown belt since spring, but hasn’t returned to group practice since then.

His dojo in Story City shut down due to COVID-19 concerns, other than a month this summer. It recently reopened. Jagger missed eight weeks of practice, and he’s stayed away since it reopened, according to his mother, Lindsey.

Jagger has followed the rise and fall of students and teachers who have become sick or exposed. The virus is serious to Jagger. He wears his mask and uses the sanitizer stations throughout the school.

But not all students follow the rules, he said.


“There’s always that one kid that doesn’t want to mask properly and sterilize his or her mask,” Jagger said.

For now, he waits to return to his pursuit of the black belt. Lindsey said he aims to test for it in summer 2021.

“It’s been a roller coaster here,” Jagger said.

This is part of a collaborative reporting project that includes IowaWatch and other news outlets. IowaWatch — The Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news outlet that strives to be the state’s leading collaborative investigative news organization. Read more at

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