Posted 6/2/21

and then there’s the in-person school year.” Loshek is the Principal of Grey Cloud Elementary. She also collaborated with the district to design K-12 education around the COVID-19 Pandemic. Each …

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and then there’s the in-person school year.”

Loshek is the Principal of Grey Cloud Elementary. She also collaborated with the district to design K-12 education around the COVID-19 Pandemic. Each time learning models required adjusting, she and her co-workers rallied “back to the drawing boards.”

During the summer of 2020, the committee outlined hybrid learning procedures for “on-the-dial” K-12 students. This form of education placed children in their school buildings every other day. The days in which they were not at school, kids completed lessons remotely.

By November 30, every grade in SWCS entered full-time distance learning. At Grey Cloud Elementary, the transition called for strict planning. The school united every child under one “identical” schedule. Families with multiple students were not overwhelmed by many agendas. Loshek described this period further: “When we went distance, we said, ‘Ok! This is the morning meeting time for everybody K-5, then this is our Block 1, then we have a break, there’s our Block 2, and then we had specials in the afternoon.’” Prior to distance learning becoming Cottage Grove Middle School’s reality, Principal Harold Scott Jr. and his administrative team advised teachers to remain as “flexible as possible.” This reminder caused the school’s adults to be prepared for any disruption. However, Scott mentioned that they could not gear up students in the same way.“I could see the impacts that [distance learning] had on our student community, yearning for that peer-to-peer interaction… understanding that we’re in the midst of a pandemic but then being a middle schooler at the same time… Understanding that it was a disease, an illness that you could catch, but there are times that you just want to see your friends…” January 19 terminated complete remote education for elementary schools in Cottage Grove. After what seemed like an extended holiday, kids could finally cycle back to in-person learning. Loshek reflected on the exhilarating time: “When we returned to [in-person] learning, it was like starting the school year because they hadn’t been in school for a while. And, they hadn’t been with the other peers in the class. They saw them in a virtual format, but this is the first time they had all been together. So it was like the first day of school. And it was the first day of school in winter…they hadn’t had the opportunity to practice snow gear!”

Loshek painted it out to be quite a chaotic Tuesday. Grey Cloud Elementary strived to space out the little ones as they bundled up and removed their winter clothes. In addition, storage was limited since not all students were permitted to have lockers. “The first day, we went, ‘Woah.’ And then we came back and we were able to figure it all out,” the principal recalled.

One month later, on February 16, hybrid learning relaunched at Cottage Grove Middle and Oltman Middle. Like most local schools, Cottage Grove Middle celebrated the change. Scott illustrated, “We had balloons and we had sidewalk chalk messages that… our staff did. When the kids walked into the building…we were clapping and telling the kids, ‘Hey, we missed you. We’re so happy to have you guys back.’” On that exact date, Park High School revived the hybrid learning model, as well. Juniors and seniors were exposed to the building first, on February 16. Next, on March 1, the freshmen and sophomores made their comeback. Todd Herber is the Principal of Park High School. While chatting with The Journal, he justified why these were the circumstances: “When we came back from distance learning into hybrid…we could not bring in more than two grades at a time, because again, [the Minnesota Department of Education was] concerned about a rabid COVID spread…I think we opted to go with grades 11 and 12 first because our feeling was, they’re the ones closest to graduation…so, having them in earlier so that we could help support them with earning credits towards their diploma…that would be important, especially for our seniors.”

By March 18, middle and high school students were in-person learning fully. “I think that it was good for all of us, adults included, that the kids did come back this year,” Scott declared.

Throughout the 2021-2022 school year, SWCS provided the Virtual Learning Academy (VLA). Families who preferred to keep their children at home during the COVID-19 Pandemic were granted that option. In addition, teachers at risk for severe disease often advocated to instruct VLA participants. Even as processes altered inside of Cottage Grove’s school buildings, the VLA was left undisturbed.

After experiencing such an unusual school season, administrators agreed to holding prominent memories. First, operating a half-empty Grey Cloud Elementary in autumn was momentous to Loshek. “What we learned is when you have really low class sizes, we can get through a lot quicker. It was really, very few conflicts or behavior [issues]. We found out proximity and…volume really had a positive impact on students in terms of…settling and that relationship- building,” she spelled out.

Every day, morning meetings would occur in hybrid classrooms at Grey Cloud Elementary. During them, teachers clarified the tasks for that day. Frequently, the students in the video call at home were projected on the Smart Boards. “We were building that class community, we were playing a game, doing a greeting…” Loshek expressed.

For Herber, he will always remember how electronics let education carry on in a “hard” time. He imagined, “If this pandemic had happened in the year 2001, I don’t know that we would have been able to respond educationally like we did this year… We wouldn’t have had individual devices. If it didn’t exist yet, we wouldn’t have had the various software like Schoology…I feel like we were fortunate that we had access to the technology…When I look at what our teachers are doing, never would have thought that they would have kids chirping in on speakers in their room while having kids in front of them trying to teach! So it’s been hard, but I’ve seen a lot of amazing things happen.”

The incoherence of local COVID-19 conditions and updating of safety orders from Governor Walz resulted in Scott’s main takeaway from the past nine months. “I guess, memories for me for this year really would be the amount of flexibility that we needed to have this year in order to make the school year function…we really had to be super flexible in just about everything that we did this year because it was subject to change at any minute,” he defended.

Flexibility was a common concept of the 20202021 school year. Because the amount of COVID-19 cases were fluctuating, Governor Walz was regularly presenting new guidance for Minnesota and its schools. Cottage Grove’s institutions had to honor and fixate on the current rules. Herber demonstrated, “Once we learned the new guidance, we learned it at the same time as the public. And so, we didn’t get a headstart at anything. So then we get the guidance, and then we sit down and work through it to make sure we understand what it means. And then, once we understand the meaning, then develop a plan to execute the guidance…” If tending to the Governor’s expectations was not demanding enough, Grey Cloud Elementary’s instructors were taking on new duties. “We needed to have people totally change positions!” Loshek exclaimed.

For instance, adults who were once reading specialists began teaching in traditional classrooms. Former band and orchestra conductors became general music instructors. Staff members were covering each others’ leaves, supervising entrances in the morning, and/or rearranging classrooms for social distancing. While the employees at Grey Cloud Elementary performed flexibility, they counted on each other. “…you can say teamwork is important but, teamwork was essential for us to survive together… and the support that our staff showed each other by‘OK, I got you! We will help you a week at a time. We’ll help you with the math because you’re a reading person.’ It was phenomenal and…there’s no way that I could have supported the teachers like their teammates did…They stepped up,” claimed Loshek.

A couple of miles away from Grey Cloud Elementary stood a ceaselessly-remodeling Park High School. Herber revealed how the “heroes” of his school portrayed flexibility inside of it: “And our custodians have been remarkable…the custodians have moved every piece of furniture in this building at least five times. Every piece. And, they did it without complaining. They knew it was for the needs of the kids and for the safety of the kids…” Pliancy in Cottage Grove’s schools stretched far beyond altering interior designs and assigning teachers new roles. Listing every example would result in an unending article. Herber illustrated what needing to be flexible in the 2020-2021 school year felt like: “I’m not a person that can even touch his toes, but I feel like I should be like the Olympic gymnast, Simone Biles, doing backflips and handstands.”

Loshek, Herber, and Scott grew as leaders through the COVID-19 Pandemic. To begin with, Loshek believed that she became a better principal in multiple respects. In her exchange with The Journal, she fixated on one area of growth. At the beginning of the school year, Loshek’s employees entered the school year worrying. The lack of operating fitness centers and social interactions did not allow them to relieve their stress. Loshek knew she needed to take care of her adults in order to let Grey Cloud Elementary thrive. “Being there for people when they’re stressed, it can be exhausting…if our teachers are stressed, that reflects on our kids and that impacts them too so it really is, ‘How do you calm the waters?’…that’s critical…” Loshek declared.

Scott did not hesitate to agree that he also grew as a leader during COVID-19. He considers himself to be an “organized” and “detailed” person. Therefore, Scott had to “check” these personality traits during unresolved times. He stated, “How I grew this year as a leader is I really had to prepare myself for the unexpected…there has been so much uncertainty this year that…I had to keep a much more open, more broader scope of things…I really needed to check my own emotions and myself and say, ‘I can only control what I can control.’ Which really, wasn’t much!”

The past nine months did not just impact the skills of three leaders. Based on their predictions, education as a whole will be forever changed. One can understand electronics’ future role in schooling as an example. “We’ll learn to use technology as a tool but also to turn it off,” Loshek estimated.

She proceeded to explain that screens “opened some doors” for Grey Cloud Elementary this year. Hosting parent-teacher conferences online enabled more guardians to attend them, for one. On top of that, children could learn from home at any moment. Even so, Loshek knows that momentarily powering off devices is healthy. To The Journal, she exclaimed, “I know it’s a challenge for me as an adult, if I’m online too long, I don’t have the stamina for it!”

According to Scott, increased mental health awareness will lay in the future of education, as well. Through the COVID-19 Pandemic, some students were frazzled by abrupt changes and the “lack of personal connection.” Because of this, Scott reckoned, “It would be good for all of us to be really conscious of mental health challenges because they surface in different ways…And, I think that we need to give each other some grace and have some patience in that process because [COVID-19] came out of nowhere and impacted all of us. And, we’re still trying to learn how to do things right.”

Like his fellow principals, Herber spoke about how aspects of the pandemic will evolve education. Rather than return to normal, he desires to “apply” what was great about the 20202021 school year to “a non-emergency setting.” Herber clarified, “Just to keep it simple, are there opportunities to create more individualized online courses for kids? So, maybe they’re not in a Park High School classroom for six hours a day. Maybe they’re in a Park High School classroom for a portion of their day. And then the other portion that they’re working independently on their online coursework.”

As for the future of mental health awareness in education, SWCS aims to help children and staff heal from “trauma” relating to COVID-19. Herber detailed, “Our school improvement plan is going to focus on recovery, responding, re-imagining with a focus of: how are the students?… Because I would say that for many… there’s a level of trauma experienced, and that doesn’t just go away. And so, we’re going to be working as a staff on how to be responsive [to] these social, emotional learning needs of our students… we’re going to figure out how to surround our kids with love. We’re going to figure out how to move them forward towards their diploma.”