CEDAR RAPIDS — When McKinley STEAM Academy opened this school year, the first face many students saw was Willie Guy’s. He stood outside the Cedar Rapids middle school on that unseasonably cool August morning, cheerful and loud, to welcome students to the 2019-2020 academic year.
He wove through busy hallways, giving high-fives and hugs to anyone who’d take one, almost all day. He didn’t have time for lunch. For McKinley’s sixth grade engagement specialist, it went on that way for nearly seven months.
Then the coronavirus pandemic unceremoniously cut classes short. The sixth- through eighth-grade students stopped arriving in the mornings, and the hallways stayed silent as spring dragged on.
“The toughest thing is you’re just asked to sit and wait,” Guy said Tuesday, a week after the official last day of school had quietly passed. “It was totally a big adjustment for me. Myself, I’m so active and about people and checking in with people.”
For all of the school’s staff, the pandemic — and, more recently, uprisings over racial injustice and police violence — left them with no playbook.
How would they keep students safe? How could they learn? Would they return in the fall?
To close The Gazette’s yearlong series about the school, here’s what four McKinley educators — the principal, the English language learners’ teacher, the school’s police officer and Guy — say about the end of an unprecedented school year. Comments are edited for clarity and length.
Jason Martinez, principal
Academics took a back seat for several weeks, until we got to a point where we decided we’re going to go with this plan of optional learning, and then academics kind of came back into the picture.
But I think throughout this process, and even now, we’re still trying to meet the basic human needs of our students and their families, and their social and emotional needs as well.
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On average, I’d say we probably had in the very beginning upward of two-thirds of our students participating (in voluntary online learning). By the end of it here, toward the end of May, it was touch-and-go, at best. Our numbers were really low. Some of my teachers were seeing maybe up to 50 percent participation. Some of my teachers are seeing less than 25 percent participation.
Of course I would have liked to have seen 100 percent participation. But the reality is that we have a lot of families — not just in the McKinley area, but in Cedar Rapids, in Iowa, across the country — who are going through a lot. I know that we have families that did lose their jobs, or were laid off and were struggling to make ends meet. If this was one way that we could support our families in their time of need, by continuing to provide an education or provide food or provide other resources, whatever we could provide — I was just thrilled that we had the capacity to do it, to be honest with you.
I was just thrilled that McKinley has the capacity and resources, and the mind-set from the staff to provide in times of need. That’s something that I really want to celebrate: the fact that the McKinley staff has always been known to step it up in times of need. That’s just who we are, and that goes back way before me. Throughout this whole crisis, my staff has just been unbelievable. They just put themselves out there.
Richard Ortega, English Language Learners teacher
“Ever since it started in mid-March, I started to give my ELL families food boxes from our pantry. Every Thursday, I was delivering with Mr. Martinez. We’d put together a box of canned foods. We started out with 12 families, and ended up with 20 toward the end. We just stopped last week. So, actually, I was seeing my kids every Thursday because I would deliver, and they would do a wave. Some were happy to see me. It was good. I had good contact with them — they would text me, email — so I could see how they were doing.
I worry about them. They lost two, three months. Some of were doing very well, and it took a while to get going. They were trying really hard, and then this thing happened, and I think they’re going to come back with a loss. I don’t know how long it’s going to take them to get back on track. I’m hoping over the summer they’re reading, pick a book. It’s for all students, but especially ELL. Some of them are just learning the language. I worry about the English and how much they’re getting and reading at home. I won’t know until September, and then who knows how school is going to be.
We’re doing Google training, we’re doing a lot of Google training. We’re preparing to do lessons on the computer, Google meetups. I’m signed up for the classes too. I’m excited. I’m just wondering how this next school year is going to start with this virus — and then with the rioting. It’s a lot to take in. I know they’re watching the news, I know they have lots of questions. I know they’re angry.”
Anne Deutmeyer, school resource officer
It’s been kind of tense. We’re riding double again. Just staying vigilant.
I understood why they did it, but the distance learning — to me, going long-term I think is a mistake. But it’s not my call. There are a lot of different layers — what are the kids doing, what are they not doing, do they have supervision, are they being taken care of? There’s just so many different layers when it comes to them. But I just hope they’re all doing OK. I haven’t really had contact with anyone. I miss the kids, the daily contact with the kids. I miss the teachers. Just the routine. Obviously, it’s just different.
In the current climate, I don’t know that what I’d say would really be heard. I just want them to know that I want the best for them. I hope that they continue to do the right thing and stay the course with their studies despite the fact they’re not actually at school. Just know that if they ever needed me, they know how to get in touch with me, and I’d be there.
Willie Guy, engagement specialist
“I’ve always told Officer Anne this, and the toughest thing for white people to understand is this. Most of the time if you grew up in the inner city as a young, black male, you’re going to be — not necessarily taught from parents, but from friends or social media — you’re going to grow up not trusting white people and the cops. It’s not right, but that’s the toughest thing for them to get past. I actually had an uncle who was a police officer growing up. He was the nicest, sweetest man you ever met, but when he went to work people didn’t know that.
It might not be the best, most popular subject for us as black people to talk about, but as black people, we have to treat each other better as well. While those things happen with police officers, those things happen in our inner cities everyday.
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I’m not justifying at all, but if you’re black in America, it’s hard to watch current and past videos of young men being beat and murdered by officers and not having hurt and anger and hatred in your heart. You can’t turn it on and off. But it’s all about the education of those parents and those people when they go to those rallies. What are we really here for? A lot of it is black people just want their voices to be heard.
I went to the one at Greene Square this past weekend. It’s really great to see people of all races come together if it’s really for a common goal. But again, for us as black people, if we really feel like this is a movement for us to jump on, it’s nice to see us as black people united as well and treating each other with the respect we deserve.
My comment always to kids in class is that we don’t value each other enough. If we did, we wouldn’t bully or pick on kids or tease them for what we think of as not normal.
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