CEDAR RAPIDS — After the Aug. 10 derecho swept through Cedar Rapids, Associate Principal Jessica Johnson walked through Kennedy High School ankle-deep in water to survey the destruction.
The roof was severely damaged, leaving gaping holes in the ceiling for water to gush in and flood the library, classrooms, the auditorium and gymnasium.
Reconstruction crews have been working for more than four months to get the high school safe for students, who have been in online learning since school started in September.
Crews are scheduled to be out of the building Jan. 4, and Kennedy teachers and staff will have a work day Jan. 8 to prepare their classrooms for students to return.
“I think everyone is wanting to come home again,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of apprehension on what it’s going to look like with COVID-19 protocols, but we’re working hard to make sure students and staff feel safe.”
When students return mid-January, they will be in hybrid learning — with half of students attending school on-campus and half attending online every other day. About 800 students will be on campus each day.
Kennedy High wasn’t the only Cedar Rapids school damaged in the derecho, but certainly was the most devastated.
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The district delayed the first day of school for all students until Sept. 21 to give time for buildings to be repaired. It was able to open all 21 elementary schools for in-person learning.
Franklin, McKinley and Taft middle schools and Kennedy, Jefferson and Washington high schools began classes online only because of the derecho damage.
Students at Franklin, McKinley, Jefferson and Washington returned to in-person classes last Wednesday. Taft students return to in-person classes Dec. 14.
Kennedy Principal Jason Kline spent a day at Washington High last week to observe it coronavirus protocols.
Kline was at Kennedy when the derecho hit. He was watching the storm through a window when he noticed water pouring into the school.
“People were running through the building with garbage cans trying to catch the water,” Kline said. “We left to see what happened to our own homes and came back the next day and it was surreal. It was pitch black in the building, I saw the holes in the ceiling, and I thought it was a lot worse than it looked the day of” the storm.
Being in a high school during the pandemic and seeing how it was operating was “eye opening,” Kline said.
He is most concerned about how to safely serve lunch. The high school is putting desks in the cafeteria instead of tables to more easily keep students 6 feet apart.
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Because of the derecho, the school’s sports teams have been without a home base this fall. The volleyball team has practiced at Harding Middle School and Corridor Courts, a volleyball club in Marion. The swim team has held practice at Washington, Jefferson and Linn-Mar high schools.
Kennedy Athletic Director Aaron Stecker said teams gathering together pre- and post-practice typically is a time for connection, bonding and team chemistry. Fall athletics didn’t get to have that this year.
“It’s great for a school community to celebrate wins and mourn losses together,” Stecker said. “If a volleyball team wins a tough match Tuesday night, on Wednesday morning they get to see their friends and they’re OK. Now they lose a tough match and they’re at home by themselves.
“There is so much to be said for being able to walk into the school and have your peers and friends give you a pat on the back and say ‘great game,’” he added.
Stecker is looking forward to having a completely new floor in the gym. The original floors were from 1967, he said.
Stecker is ready for the building to once again be filled with the energy students and staff bring. He has some good friends on staff he hasn’t seen since March when the schools first closed for the pandemic.
“Does the idea of bringing 800 people back to the school make me nervous in terms of COVID-19 and managing that? Yeah it does, but I think we’re ready to go,” Stecker said. “We have to give it a shot. We’re not designed to learn behind computer screens.”
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