Back to school, finally

North Tama, Union return to class after five months

North Tama second grader Roman Christensen smiles under his mask before the start of school on August 27. Students at North Tama have begun the year under a hybrid instruction model where Red and White groups alternate days of attending classes in person.

After 161 days watching, waiting, video chatting, and quarantining; students and staff both North Tama and Union schools finally had the opportunity to return to class.

The first day of school arrived and was met with excitement and anticipation as school staff have been hard at work over the summer preparing to hold classes with new COVID-19 safety procedures and students simply wondering when they could see their friends again.

“The students have been rockstars,” North Tama Elementary Principal Susan Olson said. “They’ve been respectful, energetic, responsible, and just it just feels awesome to be back in the building with these students.”

Morning arrival at all three elementary schools appeared to be joyous occasions with parents escorting their young students to the front of their building where teachers and staff were waiting with reassuring smiles underneath their protective masks and clear plastic face shields.

Parents who brought their students to school hung around for the obligatory first day of school photo session and left their kids with hugs, encouragement, and a few tears.

PHOTO PROVIDED - Dysart-Geneseo Elementary, Union CSD on August 27

“I think overall the first couple days of school have gone very, very well,” Union Superintendent Travis Fleshner said. “There’s always some return to school items that pop up that we address. I was in the buildings today and the staff overwhelmingly said the kids have done a great job. They’re happy to be back and we’re excited to have them back. I’m not sure we could have asked for a much better start.”

Although the first day of school is often full of its own unique emotions, activities, and challenges; the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has forced school districts across the country to implement new procedures so that school can continue with an eye toward safety and coronavirus prevention.

At North Tama students began the school year using a hybrid instruction model with two cohorts (Red Day and White Day) alternating days of attending class in the building. On the days not in the building, students are learning at home. The district committed to the hybrid instruction model through the month of September and will confer with Tama County Public Health once two 14-day incubation periods have elapsed as to the possibility of returning to 100% in person instruction. A decision regarding any potential changes to the school’s instruction model is expected on either September 22 or 23.

At Union, students began the school year a few days later than anticipated due to the sustained lack of power in the town of Dysart following the August 10 derecho. On August 27 Union students returned for 100% in-person instruction in all four school buildings.

Classes at Union will dismiss early each day at 2:15 p.m. The district plans to maintain the current instruction model and early dismissal schedule through at least October 2. A reassessment of COVID-19 metrics, instruction model, and schedule will take place for Union at their regular school board meeting on September 21.

TELEGRAPH PHOTO - North Tama Elementary on August 27

One additional challenge that schools like Union who are located across multiple counties must contend with is the need to coordinate their COVID-19 response and decision making with multiple county public health departments.

Among a number of safety measures being enacted within both school districts is a requirement for all students and staff to wear personal protective equipment including face coverings during the day. In both cases teachers are working with classes to carve out time throughout the day to give their kids mask breaks when social distancing can be observed.

“I’ve been in nearly every classroom on the first day and the word that came out of almost every teacher I spoke with is how resilient kids really are,” Fleshner said. “They just come back and they take on some changes and they were great. Our teachers have done a nice job of planning in some mask breaks. I also think that during our time away that masks have been required in certain stores and kids have had them on. Very few kids now have not had that experience of wearing a mask during the day. By and large, the kids did a wonderful job and I appreciate the support of the parents on that.”

Both North Tama and Union school districts have installed a number of similar safety protocols

Classrooms have been spaced out to allow for students, in most cases, to be socially distanced in class.

PHOTO PROVIDED - Dysart-Geneseo Elementary, Union CSD on August 27

Traffic flow through the school day was considered in preparation and protocols such as staggered arrival times were put in place to avoid cross-traffic in the hallways or entering and exiting the buildings.

Students were also asked to bring their own water bottle to school as the use of drinking fountains is temporarily prohibited.

Some of the hallmark activities of a traditional first day back to school were adjusted or postponed.

Back to school assemblies were conducted remotely with large group video conferencing providing a way for administrators to address the student body at large as well for classes to introduce themselves to each other.

At North Tama the administration coordinated a virtual flag raising ceremony that was conducted with only school administrators but broadcast into every classroom. The district also hosted a public speaker, Joe Beckman, to provide some words of encouragement during the flag raising assembly.

PHOTO PROVIDED - Union Knights student section during the varsity football team's season opener against Oelwein on August 28.

Despite all of the adjustments, school administrators felt like the weeks and months of preparation had paid off toward a positive first day.

“The administrative team worked throughout the summer to make sure we had things in place so that our school would be healthy and safe for our students and our staff,” Olson said. “We made sure that the things we were discussing over the summer were in place. Having the school board’s support has allowed us to do things with the school like the hyrid schedule that we feel is the best for the student health and safety.”

While the majority of students at North Tama and Union have returned to on site learning, families were still given the option to keep their student on 100% virtual instruction.

At North Tama there are around ((????)) students district-wide that will be attending classes virtually to begin the year.

For the remote learner students, the North Tama district will be utilizing the Edgenuity Pathblazer program to conduct online classes in the core subjects. Classes are taught by teachers accredited in the state of Iowa and students will have a North Tama staff member assigned to them to act as a link between North Tama and the Edgenuity program.

TELEGRAPH PHOTO - North Tama Elementary on August 27

At Union there were 43 students district-wide that began the school year attending classes virtually. Their hope is to create a system that will keep on site learners and remote learners working on similar coursework and at a relative similar pace.

“We are working to almost build a parallel between what’s happening in the classroom and online instruction,” Fleshner said. “Depending on the course, there may be some live streaming opportunities but at the same time there may be things that teachers record and link online to Google Classroom or Canvas. We’re still working through some of that because some teachers are still determining what’s the best way to do all of this.”

Following the first day of school, both administrators expressed optimism toward how their students, staff, and community have all handled the start of the new school year amid the coronavirus challenges.

“Our teachers were so excited to have students back in the building,” Olson said. “The students reactions both on Red Day and White Day were excitement to get back into classes as well. They’ve been very respectful and very responsible as far as wearing their masks. I think they’re really stoked to be back in class with a little bit of normality back in their world.”

“It has been 164 days since we last had kids in our schools,” Fleshner said. “Lots has changed in the world and lots has changed locally. But I really commend the community on their continued support of the school district. Their support has really been unwavering. They know we’re going to do our absolute best to bring kids back safely. I’ve been very appreciative to know that they recognize the challenges that we face.

PHOTO PROVIDED - Dysart-Geneseo Elementary, Union CSD on August 27

PHOTO PROVIDED - Stacey Vogeler, Heidi Elliott, and Roxann Lazenby from the North Tama foodservice department deliver nutritious meals to an elementary classroom.

TELEGRAPH PHOTO - North Tama Elementary on August 27

TELEGRAPH PHOTO - Dysart-Geneseo Elementary, Union CSD on August 27

PHOTO PROVIDED - North Tama 2nd grade students enjoy lunch in their classroom on the first day of school.

PHOTO PROVIDED - Kolt Knaack gets his back to school supplies from Ms. Wendt and Ms. Boerm.

TELEGRAPH PHOTO - Dysart-Geneseo Elementary, Union CSD on August 27

TELEGRAPH PHOTO - Dysart-Geneseo Elementary, Union CSD on August 27