The COVID-19 pandemic turned most people’s lives upside down and was especially challenging for schools. Speaking to the Waunakee Rotary Club about the effects, particularly in Waunakee, school district administrator Randy Guttenberg recalled the Governor’s Safer at Home order issued on March 13, 2000.
“We were starting spring break, and that was a point where our staff had just finished parent-teacher conferences. They were out the door. The governor made the announcement. We were thinking, ‘Great, we have spring break. We’re going to be awesome for a week.’”
But Randy began to ponder the possibility of it being extended another week and the reaction from parents.
The school community comprises 4,300 students in grades 4k-12, along with their families. Randy said when he sends an email, it reaches 12,000 people.
Throughout the pandemic, the teaching staff did a phenomenal job, he said, utilizing four different instructional models. Very quickly at the onset, they adapted to a remote learning format.
“When you go back pre-pandemic, as far as like online learning, teachers had to be certified, they had to have some level of training before you could be a certified trainer at the high school to give credits to students,” Randy said.
But in March 2020, in a week, administrators gave a primer on online learning instruction so all staff could jump in the following week.
“So then, just within a few days, we had to get to a point where everybody had to have the technology,” Randy said.
Randy called the district’s Dane County jurisdiction both a blessing and a challenge.
“The blessing was we had a lot of input. We had a lot of pieces from public health. We had a lot of guidelines,” he said, adding colleagues from other counties received little direction.
“A lot of folks would be contacting us to see what kind of guidance we were receiving,” Randy added.
Yet the health department’s orders and ensuing court challenges and rulings elicited strong reactions among parents.
“The moment those [orders] changed, my email lit up,” Randy said, as parents asked about the districts next policies. Randy gave credit to Waunakee school board members’ endurance as they met weekly during approximately four months of changing guidelines.
School administrators learned several lessons from the pandemic, Randy said.
No. 1, that many families in the community have needs and not all are equal. The most apparent need was for internet service as the district moved to online learning. The district had to provide 120 hotspots to families.
“In order for us to teach them, we had to get through that hurdle,” Randy said.
In the long term, ensuring the district can serve all families, regardless of their internet access, will be important.
About 10 percent of the students in the district are eligible for free and reduced lunch, so without those noon meals offered in school, learning could be an issue. The district responded, and between Sept. 1, 2020 and June 2021, provided 14,000 meals.
Even prior to the pandemic, stress, anxiety and depression were on the rise among students. The past year only exacerbated those feelings as students were unable pursue their hopes and dreams in sports, performing arts or other avenues.
“A big part of what our staff had to do is build connections with kids,” Randy said, adding that they will need to continue those connections.
Students and staff also faced challenges as they returned to in-person learning, and Randy said he expects that will be the case as the district returns to a 5-day per week schedule in the fall.
And yet some students thrived with remote learning and will want to continue an e-learning format in the future.
While many perceived students as becoming “Zoomed out” during the pandemic, they were actually learning some skills they’ll use in the workforce.
“They had to learn the technology, which is now going to be a life skill. They had to learn a lot of the employability skills we otherwise couldn’t teach: independence, responsibility, time management, things that we weren’t there every day to hold their hands in class,” Randy said.
He added that he would not recommend remote learning for all students, but administrators know it now has to be an option.
Overall, the pandemic forced us to slow down. Randy said he has had some concerns about students being overscheduled in a district with a rigorous school curriculum with their own extracurricular pursuits. Randy said he hopes as a society, we can see the benefits of having some free time as families sit down together for dinner again.
Right now, Randy said he sees division in the community.
“And when I look at that just from an organizational standpoint, we’re normally a very collaborative culture; we work very well together with our staff,” he said.
But the pandemic afforded no time for collaboration as problems needed to quickly be solved.
“You had to make decisions; you had to move forward. And that caused a lot of angst. It caused angst with our staff, with our parents, with the community,” Randy said.
Now the question is how can we find ways to heal from all of the experiences we’ve had together during the last 18 months?
“And how do we come together as community around some of the issues?” Guttenberg said.
Other news:
-Volunteers are needed to staff the WaunaFest Rotary food stand Saturday night and most of Sunday. WaunaFest is June 22-26. Check your email box for signups or log into Clubrunner.
-Cannery Row sent a thank you note to the club for the picnic Wednesday.
-Bob Klostermann is planning a fall cruise on the Betty Lou on Sept. 26 from noon-1 p.m. Also, Tuesday nights, we can show up for fellowship at Village Park for the Live from the Park music series. The last Tuesday is a Polka Night as the community gears up for Wauktoberfest. Let Bob know if you have other ideas for fellowship opportunities.
Guests: None.
Visiting Rotarians: None.
Birthdays: July 25, Jim Schmitz; July 26, Erick Plumb; July 28, Bob Arntz.
Anniversaries: None.
Greeters: July 22, Pat Durden and Fritz Durst; July 29, Jim Elvekrog and Daniel Evans; Aug. 5, Jim Fitzpatrick and Tracy Graber; Aug. 12, Richard Harris and David Hogg; Aug. 19, Lisa Humenik and Jim Kattner.