Schools keep kids fed and educated

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Pictured, from left, Waterloo High School Principal Lori Costello and Gardner Elementary School Principal Jessica Washausen assist with packing meals for Waterloo students on Thursday. 

Although Gov. JB Pritzker has ordered all schools in the state to remain closed until at least April 7 to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus plaguing the country, many schools are still helping students by offering food and education. 

Area schools are no different, as the Waterloo, Columbia, Valmeyer and Dupo school districts are all providing both to their students. 

“We’re prioritizing things, and our No. 1 concern is making sure our students who have come to rely on us for meals to continue to get access to nutrition,” Waterloo Superintendent Brian Charron said. “Securing the volunteers and transportation to deliver meals has been quite an operation.”

Since it started delivering meals to students at each of the district’s bus stops last Thursday, Charron said the requests for that service have only grown. 

The district used 14 buses to deliver over 2,000 meals – a breakfast and lunch for each child – on Monday. 

The district’s cafeteria workers are handling meal preparation while a team of 75-100 volunteers complete tasks like packaging and sorting. 

Charron said the district is keeping those workers apart and restricting their movements as much as possible to maintain appropriate social distancing. 

“We’re trying to be as efficient as possible and use the minimum number of human beings to make this possible so we can reduce the transmission of this virus should somebody have it,” Charron said. 

The Columbia School District is taking a different approach, offering a drive-thru once a week for parents to pick up a week’s worth of meals. 

At its first pickup last Tuesday, the district provided over 500 meals. 

Pictured, Columbia School District volunteers hand meals to a family as part of the district’s drive-thru meal system last week. 

“Our first pickup was great,” Columbia Assistant Superintendent Courtney Castelli said. “We had volunteers from our kitchen staff come in to do that in the morning, then we had the drive-thru, which worked very well.” 

Castelli said the number of students the district is feeding has increased, and the district has reached out to those who may not have been able to complete the online form to sign up for the meals. 

Although state law prohibits school districts from mandating students complete any school work or grading during this time, many teachers are also still providing their pupils a chance to learn. 

In Columbia, that began with the district assessing the technological capabilities of its families so it can work with those who may lack some resources. 

Castelli said students in elementary school are using familiar programs like Prodigy: Math Learning Platform or Google Classroom, while older students are working on “skill-based development.”  

For younger students, Castelli said the district sent about four weeks of material home with them. 

“The vast majority would require very little parent oversight, except for maybe getting them started,” Castelli explained. “Our goal was to try to have them be as independent in their work as possible.”

Physical education teachers are also providing opportunities for students to exercise at home. 

“Across the board, teachers are organizing all that material,” Castelli said. 

The same is true in Waterloo, as Charron said teachers have developed e-learning options for students. 

“I’m extremely proud of our teachers who are finding ways to continue to offer opportunities for learning to all of our students,” he said. “It’s very complicated, and certain subjects and content areas are more difficult to do that than others. This is a learning curve for all of us, but our teachers are embracing the challenge.” 

Charron also said teachers have collaborated to determine what has worked best in this new learning environment, and the district is soliciting feedback from its faculty to compile a list of best practices. 

Charron said students have responded fairly well to those learning chances, though he acknowledged some are more passionate than others. 

“We have been encouraging parents, students and our teachers to embrace learning for the sake of learning and to remove all of the anxiety associated with being graded on the work they’re doing to just really focus on keeping children engaged academically,” Charron said. 

Castelli said students in the middle grades, like her daughter  in seventh grade, have adjusted fairly easy to e-learning since it is often employed in the classroom. 

“We just help her manage her time so she doesn’t become overwhelmed with the amount of stuff that’s there, but can still get something accomplished between her Tik Tok stuff,” Castelli said. 

Castelli also stressed the district’s special education teachers are working to provide various applications and services electronically if at all possible. 

Even with all that effort, schools have canceled or postponed events without knowing if they will be rescheduled. 

“The biggest things that are put on hold are those ceremonial type of things, and they’re a big part of school culture so that’s hard,” Castelli noted.

Charron noted districts have canceled everything through April 7, and many have not tried to reschedule those activities because the school closure could be extended again. Spring break is scheduled for the district through April 13.

“If the time comes where we are back in school, we will reevaluate everything that was canceled and certainly try to reschedule anything that it is appropriate to,” he said. “But we’re also accepting the reality that some of these things that are canceled are simply not going to be rescheduled, and that may include the remainder of the school year.” 

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