CORONAVIRUS

What will school look like this fall? Cedar Rapids district working on 3 plans

Superintendent Noreen Bush discusses scenarios for teaching kids amid coronavirus pandemic

Noreen Bush (right) and Nancy Humbles, president of the Board of Education, speak with The Gazette in May 2019 after a B
Noreen Bush (right) and Nancy Humbles, president of the Board of Education, speak with The Gazette in May 2019 after a Board of Education meeting at the Educational Leadership and Support Center in Cedar Rapids. Bush, now the superintendent for the Cedar Rapids Community School District, says the district is working on three scenarios for students returning to school in the fall amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Noreen Bush, the superintendent of Iowa’s second-largest school district, doesn’t expect to learn if the 17,000 students in the Cedar Rapids Community School District will physically return to schools this fall sooner than anyone else.

“When the governor closed schools, we found out at the same time as the public,” Bush said. “Then the Department of Education provided guidance. I imagine that will be (the case for) the fall as well — at some point in time the governor will provide some sort of proclamation.”

In the meantime, she and other Cedar Rapids school officials are developing the district’s “Return to Learn” plan. The plan — a version of which all Iowa school districts must submit to the Iowa Department of Education by July 1 — will outline how schools would reopen virtually in the fall, if necessary.

If school facilities aren’t able to reopen next school year because of the coronavirus pandemic, schools will be expected to provide virtual education similar to the “required” online learning some districts provided this spring. The Cedar Rapids district provided “voluntary” learning, which could not be mandated or counted for credit.

“It’s kind of like the spring was, ‘do your very best with what you have,’ because we weren’t necessarily prepared,” Bush said. “And for us, we couldn’t guarantee everybody had access.”

Come August, Iowa school districts will have to be ready to teach all students from a distance.

Even if schools can open, Bush said she is sorting out what in-person teaching could look like and how the district would respond if someone on staff or a student were diagnosed with COVID-19.

“If we are live and kids come back to school, we have to have plans for that, too,” she said.

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While new education guidance is released frequently, Bush said the Cedar Rapids Community School District is planning for three scenarios in the fall.

A ‘hybrid model’

What if the district can’t safely transport students to school on buses that usually have 50 to 60 students? What if it’s physically impossible to create 6 feet of distance around 30 students in one classroom?

“The grapple right now is what would a hybrid model look like,” Bush said. “If we have some kids at home, and some kids at school — we could figure out the best schedules in the world … it’s the actual management of it and the burden that could become for families.”

The district has considered scenarios of splitting the school week in half for groups of students or having them attend only every other day, but Bush said she is worried about how such a schedule would interrupt the lives of parents and staff.

“From a management point of view, theoretically, it completely makes sense,” she said. “But to operationalize that — I have concerns for our families and what that would look like. Some folks would just be totally prepared for it and would just work it out. But for others, it would definitely be a challenge.”

A 100 percent online plan

Easier, the superintendent said, is the creation of the district’s virtual learning plan.

When schools closed in March, the district was in only its first year of providing laptops to high school students. It was on track to provide Chromebooks to all middle-schoolers this fall.

That plan is moving forward and has been fast-tracked — the district is using some of its funding from the CARES Act as well as revenue from the state SAVE sales tax to buy devices for elementary school students. Those should be to students by August.

The district also has ordered more internet hot spots for students after a district survey revealed about 1,800 of the district’s 17,000 students did not have access to online learning at home.

Back in person

Should school facilities be allowed to reopen as normal, Bush said she would want the district stocked on protective health equipment, such as face masks, as well as cleaning supplies.

There would likely be an element of student responsibility for keeping their areas clean, Bush said, similar to expectations they throw away their own trash. For example, middle-school students could be asked to put on rubber gloves and wipe down their desks at the end of a class period.

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“People might not think that’s a big deal, but to what degree are kids responsible for helping keep the areas clean?” she said. “Because the kids haven’t been in school, we haven’t had to operationalize that yet. I think that will be very different in the fall. Things are just going to take more time to clean and keep safe every day.”

High-fives and hugs from teachers also would need to be replaced with socially distant interactions like air-fives and air-hugs.

“It can be overwhelming thinking about all the details,” Bush said. “But from a big picture point of view, we just want to make sure that our families and kids are safe and healthy, and we want them to be learning.

“I know that that sounds oversimplified, but what’s the best that we can do to make sure those two things are accomplished?”

Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.