MENDOTA – After many months of planning and preparation for a safe return to classes at Mendota High School, teachers and administrators agreed that the first week of school went well.
One week in, Superintendent Jeff Prusator had many positives to report. “The good news is everyone was very pleased with the first week of school. There were some bumps but we expected that,” Prusator said. “Nobody ever tried to open schools during a pandemic before so this is all new.”
Many changes were in store for students as they began the new school year on Sept. 8. One of the first was temperature checks, which Prusator said went extremely well. Using forehead scan thermometers that are calibrated to account for weather conditions, students quickly adapted to the process. “It took a little time to get used to it but it’s going very well,” he said.
Principal Denise Aughenbaugh said one of the main concerns they had while planning to reopen was lunch. To keep lunchtime safe, students are served a sack lunch in four separate areas during three different lunch times so distance can be maintained. “The kids have been wonderful about the changes,” Aughenbaugh noted. “They don’t have food choices like they used to but they understand why we have to do that.”
Despite the term “sack lunch,” Prusator praised the cafeteria staff for finding ways to be creative in providing variety for the students. “Our six lunch ladies have been phenomenal,” he said. “They are taking the time to change things up – one day they made turkey wraps, another day the kids got hot dogs wrapped in foil to stay hot, so they’re not just serving peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”
By using technology, students are sent a reminder each day to order lunch for the following day. The students have assigned seats for eating so the staff knows when and where each student is located and lunch is delivered to them. The students take their masks off to eat but when they are done eating, they have to put their masks back on. “They can talk to the people around them but they have to stay in their seats,” Prusator noted. “The kids have been great about it and have done what we’ve asked of them.”
From all reports, the mask requirement has posed no problems at MHS. Classes are 85 minutes long but include a five-minute break to go outside, relax and take off the masks. “The kids have been great as far as wearing their masks,” Prusator said. “We have all gotten used to them and we have had no issues with masks – the kids keep them on.”
One positive outcome from all the changes at school is in the use of technology. “This has forced us to improve our technology skills – if there’s any good to come of this, it would be that,” Aughenbaugh noted. “These are forced changes, but we will be able to continue using some of them.”
That includes the use of Zoom for remote classes. Prusator said money the school received from the Cares Act was used to purchase wireless digital cameras so classes could be streamed when students are quarantined at home. “That has gone very well,” he said. “We so appreciate the parents and community for understanding that there are bound to be bumps in the road, but we are doing our best to stay safe and keep students in the classroom.”
Prusator emphasized that due to all the safety measures they have taken – social distancing, cleaning, and most importantly wearing masks at all times – and the cooperation they have received, he believes that MHS is a safe environment. “But there are challenges and none of them were unexpected. We don’t have our head in the sand,” he said. “We expected that eventually a student or teacher would test positive for COVID-19 and we had our first student test positive yesterday [Sept. 15].”
When a student tests positive, the school provides the LaSalle County Health Department with the names and phone numbers of people who were exposed to that student. That includes anyone who was within six feet of the student for 15 minutes or longer. Aughenbaugh said the health department then does all the contact tracing. “They have been wonderful to work with, always available to answer our questions and they work very closely with our school nurse, talking almost daily,” she said.
Anyone who was exposed must quarantine for 14 days from the contact date. Prusator pointed out that this process is good because it is a way to prevent further spread and to keep people safe. In addition, any student who has any symptoms of sickness at all, such as a headache or sore throat, has to do a 10-day quarantine before they can return to school.
To keep the public updated, the MHS website [mendotahs.org] has a quick link to a COVID-19 dashboard with statistics on any quarantines, positive cases, recovered cases and overall enrollment. “I will try to update it daily so we can be as transparent and honest as possible with everyone,” Prusator said. “The worst thing is for rumors that are not true to get started. This way, anyone can check and see how many students are in school, how many positives we’ve had, how many are in quarantine, etc.”
MHS English teachers Matt Gehm and Jenn Masini agreed that the first week of school went well for the most part. Gehm said students have been really good about mask-wearing, aside from an occasional reminder to someone to keep the mask on properly. “There hasn’t seemed to be any real push-back to wearing them,” he said. “I think the students understand the importance of wearing a mask to protect others and stop or slow the potential spread of COVID primarily, but other similar viruses as well. And if not, I think they understand that they do have to wear one in order to be here since remote learning is an option. In general, the students seem to be adjusting well to all the changes. I think that they are glad to be back and having some return to normalcy, even if it’s not a completely normal return.”
For Masini, masks and social distancing have presented somewhat of a challenge to learning and instruction this year. “But the health and well-being of our students and staff is priority number one and I have been impressed by how cooperative my students have been in wearing their masks,” she said.
Masini noted that the short “mask breaks” during class when the teacher and students step outside, socially distance, and take masks off to get a breath of fresh air is helpful. “I do miss being able to smile at my students and seeing my students’ smiles,” she said. “Also, teachers have to speak louder while wearing a mask for students to be able to hear them, so strained voices have been a bit of an issue.”
As for teaching, Gehm said some adjustments had to be made to modify lessons and unit plans for the new block schedule. “But changing up the routine can be good,” he added. “It’s easy to fall into a rut and do the same things all the time, so the schedule change is good for us teachers in that regard.”
Gehm, who also teaches social studies, said he had a jump start on the changes because the social studies department put all their materials online when MHS went one-to-one and he did the same with his English courses. “That made the transition during the spring shutdown a bit easier for me personally, and as a department the other social studies teachers and I had to make only a handful of modifications so students could turn in their work,” he said.
Both Gehm and Masini said learning to use new technology tools such as Zoom has taken some time. “Many teachers put in many hours over the summer familiarizing themselves with technology tools such as Bitmoji/virtual classrooms, Flipgrid, Screencastify, and Zoom (just to name a few),” Masini said. “Another obstacle teachers will be faced with is providing instruction to students who may be in quarantine at home for extended periods of time, while addressing the needs of our in-person learners. It is a bit of a juggling act with lots of trial and error with Zoom and Google Classroom as we figure it all out.”
But Gehm said Zoom could also be a real game-changer for teaching students who have extended absences for surgeries or illnesses. “Now, a student who is home for a couple of days can receive similar instruction to the students who are in attendance,” he said. “It’s not exactly the same as being in-person, but it is a good substitute. Students will be better able to keep up with the course-work, so in that regard, this experience has been positive.”
Both agreed that it will take some time to feel totally comfortable with the new technology, though. “Like I tell my students, flexibility and patience are going to be the name of the game this year, and we are all going to have to give each other – and ourselves – a whole lot of grace as we adapt to the changes,” Masini said.
Prusator emphasized that MHS wants to keep the high school open as long as they possibly can. His concern is that over time there may not be enough staff to do so. Currently, teachers who are quarantined have been able to teach from home using Zoom, which has worked well so far. “I credit the staff and Mr. Siri for their effort with this,” he said. “They have been extremely cooperative and we couldn’t have asked for more from them. We held so many meetings over the summer and had everyone involved in making decisions. Because of that, the people who are here feel safe.”
This semester, 99 of MHS’s 522 students opted for remote learning and do not attend regular classes. Those students are on a completely online curriculum and do not attend any classes via Zoom. Prusator said remote students have the same educational standards and are required to have 300 minutes of instruction per day, which is tracked through the software. “Some students are doing well with the curriculum, others are struggling, but it is still much better than is was last spring,” he noted.
Prusator said his main focus this year is keeping school open. “Everybody is very happy to be back at school and we are asking parents and the community to hang in there with us,” he said. “There will be challenges ahead but I believe the kids are safe at school. In fact, two of our remote learners have tested positive and they were not in school. I don’t think the virus is being spread at school because the kids are following the rules here. But when they’re at home and on the weekends with their friends, do they keep their masks on all the time? We can’t control that.”