By Tim Ashley
WARSAW — Dr. David Hoffert, Warsaw Community Schools superintendent, summed up the 2020-21 academic year by noting Warsaw has had public schools for more than 170 years but this year was different than any of those years. “It was the most challenging and the most rewarding,” he said.
Students wearing masks, social distancing and spreading everything out more, fewer field trips or athletic trips, increased hand washing and sanitizing, escalated virtual learning and more added up to a school year that won’t soon be forgotten. The COVID pandemic not only altered the school year, but has spurred some changes that will remain in place even after the pandemic is no longer a major concern.
Hoffert said when the pandemic arrived in March 2020 a very quick transition to virtual learning had to be made once Gov. Eric Holcomb ordered schools to no longer be open. Hoffert, and others, learned about digital learning platforms such as Google Meet, Zoom and others they simply were not very familiar with.
Due to the “fear of what is there,” it was even harder to start summer school last year but the decision was made to do so and it opened July 1. “It was scary at first,” Hoffert commented.
Referring to summer school he said “If we can do this, we can get elementary school off the ground (in August).”
High school graduation in 2020 was also a big step forward and it was held for the first time ever outdoors. “We were able to defy the odds,” and have a graduation ceremony, he noted.
Making the decision to open up every school building in August for in-person learning was not popular with everyone, but Hoffert said “we believe very strongly in-person education is the best option.” Also, he pointed out Warsaw Community Schools is the third largest employer in Kosciusko County and has a definite impact on the local economy.
Trying to be as “normal” as possible, school buildings were opened and remained open, though with challenges, throughout the school year. “We were one of the largest school districts in the state to stay open,” Hoffert said.
November was particularly challenging, he said, when the second wave of COVID hit and the numbers of those testing positive increased. Several staff members had to go into quarantine due to being in close contact with someone who had COVID. “We had to shuffle people around,” he said. “It wasn’t like we could ask for more volunteers.”
The high school had the most quarantines likely due to students switching classes and having more exposure to the virus outside of school settings during traveling, sports, sleepovers, etc. “But we didn’t have to shut down any games or have any teams in quarantine,” Hoffert said, though schedules were changed to limit traveling and some opposing teams had to forfeit games due to quarantines.
Mental health issues increased “and we don’t know the extent yet of mental health issues,” he said, adding “it’s a different stress, one we could not begin to comprehend.”
Some school districts had teachers trying to juggle teaching both in-person and virtually, but Warsaw chose to have teachers doing either one or the other with the exception of some in-person teachers teaching virtually only if their schedule allowed it.
As stressful as the school year was at times, there were also rewards. “Everyone came together for a common purpose,” Hoffert commented.
Much was learned about the importance of cleaning, new teaching methods, how students learn and gaps for student access to Wi-Fi were filled in. Students were very adaptable because they didn’t want to be isolated from their friends and remain at home like it was especially for a few months last year.
The importance of in-person learning was also reinforced. “Learning people and relational skills is critical,” Hoffert noted, saying one example is it is very hard to learn to read without human interaction.
Moving forward, some things will remain the same such as the new cleaning procedures and the importance of social and emotional learning will be emphasized.
Returning to the normalcy of much of the 2019-20 school year is certainly hoped for, “but a lot can change,” Hoffert commented.