CLEVELAND, Ohio — In a school year filled with uncertainty, thanks to the coronavirus, Mentor Superintendent William Porter noticed something that stuck with him: a higher level of appreciation between students and teachers.
Porter, who has been superintendent for four years, said students and teachers “were overjoyed to see each other” after doing fully remote learning from mid-November to mid-January.
“I saw how much our students need their teachers, and I saw how much our teachers need their students,” Porter said. “Both of those at kind of a profound level for me.”
Porter and other superintendents across Northeast Ohio had to manage and lead a school district during a year that was anything but ordinary. Learning over Zoom became routine for some students. School districts like Bedford experimented with co-teacher classrooms, with one teacher educating online students and another teaching students in person.
Choir concerts went virtual for Avon Lake, and districts canceled cherished annual traditions, like Mentor schools’ eighth grade trip to Washington D.C.
Each district experienced unique challenges, no matter their financial situation or reputation. Still, many superintendents said they appreciate what their districts managed to accomplish amid a tough year.
Cleveland.com spoke with seven superintendents across Northeast Ohio to learn about their various experiences managing the school year during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ahead of the 2020-21 school year, Avon Lake City Schools came together with teachers and talked with parents about its plan. The district decided to have students choose to learn in-person five days a week or learn completely remote, Superintendent Bob Scott said.
The school board supported the plan, noting how it would be best for students. With 82% of students learning in-person and 18% remote, Scott believes Avon Lake made its plan work.
That doesn’t mean the year has been easy.
“Our staff is exhausted,” Scott said. “They’re tremendous, and whether they’re the remote teachers or in-person teachers, they did what had to be done. I guess for us, the biggest thing that I could say is this was not a year that we just hung on, that we just managed COVID. Our kids have done well. We just didn’t hang in there and try to get through this year. This has been a valuable educational year for our kids, and that’s what makes me proud.”
Scott said throughout the year, the district had to manage some COVID outbreaks and some students had to quarantine. Support from staff and parents was essential during anxious periods, and through it all, students were resilient, Scott said.
With academics managed differently, so were extracurricular activities and other events. Scott said elementary school students typically take field trips to Avon Lake Public Library, but those didn’t happen this year. Teachers still found ways to make school fun, though. Some students took a virtual field trip to an apple orchard.
The district also used live streaming for a high school honors ceremony, usually an in-person dinner for students and parents. This year they streamed the ceremony in the auditorium, and 1,500 people joined the stream from six different countries and 31 states, Scott said.
“We’ll probably even when we get back to in person, we’re going to probably live stream (everything) just because your grandmother who is in India gets to watch,” Scott said.
Bedford City School District had around 42% of its students return for in-person learning when the school year started, Superintendent Andrea Celico said.
“That’s been a little problematic in the sense (of) the personal touch to learning,” Celico said. “The hands-on experiences, the social aspects of it. Just things that we’re able to group students and put them in project-based learning opportunities. It’s very challenging to do online, even though our teachers are doing a phenomenal job of reaching our students the best they can. I feel like the students are missing out on those opportunities.”
Bedford constructed a setup where pre-K students through third graders are coming in person four days a week. Celico said the district hired 15-20 elementary school teachers, ensuring enough teachers to only focus on in-person learning. About 10-14 students are in these classrooms, allowing teachers to give more attention to each student.
Celico said grades 4-12 still have small class sizes because of the low number of in-person students, but teachers on those grade levels are livestreaming, meaning online classes and in-person classes happen simultaneously.
The district implemented co-teaching models in some classrooms to help ease the pressure, with one teacher educating the online class and another the in-person group. Celico said this situation is hard for teachers, but what’s even more challenging is if it’s only one teacher in the classroom.
“Because they want to address both the students in the classroom as well as at home, and that’s hard to do,” Celico said.
As this school year winds down, Celico said the district has a high percentage of students failing courses. Bedford has targeted students at risk of failing, putting them in after-school programs to help catch them up.
“And we actually allowed students at one time to replace a grade,” Celico said. “So in other words, if I failed Algebra 1 and I take it in the after-school program, and I get a B or a C, we were allowing them the opportunity to replace some of those grades.”
During the summer, Bedford will offer a full-day program for elementary students. The program will have an in-person option running from 8 a.m. to noon for students and families who just want to catch up on general learning. The full-day experience will run from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Students will engage in enrichment activities like robotics and gardening in the afternoon, Celico said. The program begins June 14 and runs for six weeks.
Parents who aren’t comfortable sending in their children for in-person learning can use the online option, where teachers will instruct students for about three and a half hours. Students in higher grade levels also have in-person and online options available for credit recovery or enrichment.
Along with these opportunities, Bedford will provide tutoring vouchers at Sylvan, Kumon and North Coast Education Services. Students can receive 20 sessions, and Bedford will pay for them.
At the start of the school year, one of Maple Heights’ challenges was finding ways to make sure students had access to computers and Wi-Fi. The district worked with organizations such as PCs for People in acquiring computers and received money from the state for Wi-Fi hotspots, Superintendent Charlie Keenan said.
Keenan said from the start of the year in August through March, Maple Heights students have predominantly learned remotely. The district has shifted to a hybrid format since then. Keenan doesn’t like to label students as behind, but the district is using the spring to assess where students have gaps and need more support.
Summer school will be in person but will be supplemented with online instruction, too. It will start shortly after the current school year ends May 27 and will run until the next school year.
“That’s what we intend on doing, a lot of personalized learning,” Keenan said of summer school. “And then as we get into next school year, we’re going to continue to use that data to try and identify areas of weakness for kids. We’ll be doing regular curriculum instruction of what kids need, but then also pushing in those additional supports based on what the kids’ areas of deficiencies might be.”
Keenan noted that while this year has been less than ideal, the district’s staff and families have been resilient.
“It’s been a miserable experience to have to try and provide education in this setting, but I think the bright spot is to see the resiliency of all the people involved in it,” Keenan said.
For Superintendent William Porter, one of the biggest challenges for this school year was keeping students and staff as safe as possible while also keeping learning and extracurricular activities as normal as possible.
Porter knows how important extracurriculars are in connecting students to their schools and one another, so he wanted to make sure students could access them as much as possible. At one point in the winter, they had to pause sports for a couple of months because of the high number of COVID cases in the state and region.
Sixth graders didn’t go to overnight camps, and the eighth graders didn’t go to Washington D.C. because of how much they’d be in close contact with one another.
“It disappointed me for sure because that’s a tradition we’ve had in our district for a long time,” Porter said of the D.C. trip. “I think people understood that’s not a trip that would be easy to have under COVID conditions even yet. We would certainly like to return to that at some point in the future. How soon that will be, I don’t know.”
But as the world reopens, Mentor students have gotten to enjoy some timeless traditions. The seniors had prom, albeit with some restrictions, and graduation this year will be held at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on June 5.
From an academic standpoint, Porter thinks students have generally stayed on track. He said that since the district learned in various ways during the year, some gaps exist, including in reading, math and social-emotional gaps. The district has created an extended learning plan to identify students who might need more help in the summer and next year.
Despite the strange, one-of-a-kind year, Porter is proud of what staff, students, parents and people in his community have done to help one another.
“I think it speaks to the power of collaboration,” Porter said. “No one felt like they were in this alone, and people were helping people in ways, at levels that I’ve never seen before. So as difficult as the pandemic has been, it was also heartwarming to see all the gestures of kindness and support throughout the course of the year.”
North Olmsted Superintendent Mike Zalar spoke about the ever-evolving conditions and guidelines that caused some enormous challenges for the district throughout the pandemic.
“Just this week, the governor announced that all health orders will end on June 2. The CDC just released new guidelines for vaccinated individuals. When the guidelines change, that impacts many of our protocols here in the district,” Zalar said.
Zalar said despite the majority of the staff being vaccinated, most students are still not even eligible, which impacts decision-making.
“We have to take our entire school community into consideration when making decisions,” Zalar said.
Zalar believes his staff has done a great job keeping students engaged this school year despite facing challenges. Still, the school district has created an extended learning plan to address any learning gaps that might have occurred due to COVID.
“The staff has really worked hard this school year to implement new protocols regarding the safety and daily operations of our district,” Zalar said. “Teachers have stepped up not only in the classroom but have helped provide food and other basic need items to those families who have been struggling during this pandemic.”
Zalar said he also appreciates how flexible students and families have been through the pandemic.
“I’m proud of how our school and community came together to rise above this challenging year,” Zalar said.
Zalar said he misses in-person events and activities the most and noted how different interactions have become with students and their families.
“There have been a lot of regular events that have been canceled due to COVID, but just being able to interact with students and families in person has been different this year,” Zalar said.
Charles Smialek, superintendent of Parma City schools, says the unpredictable nature of the virus caused significant challenges for the school district.
“We keep wanting to think that we are trending back to normal, but then are reminded that the virus will set the timeline,” Smialek said.
Smialek noted while many students handled remote and hybrid learning very well, others did struggle. The school district plans to provide free summer school to those who have fallen slightly behind.
“We look forward to this opportunity to help them return to their previous levels of success,” Smialek said.
Smialek said the district’s teachers have stepped up during the pandemic. He noted their usage of creative technology like Google Classroom had become a great tool to mobilize learning for students.
“This was a brutally hard year for both students and staff. In and out, back and forth: we have described our journey as a labyrinth. I have continually been impressed by the resilience of our students and staff as they have adjusted well to the constantly changing nature of education during a pandemic,” Smialek said.
Smialek said out of all the canceled traditions, he misses award ceremonies the most.
“It’s been a very quiet spring from an awards ceremonies standpoint. I miss seeing the smiles and happiness of students and their families as they gain recognition for their achievements during the year,” Smialek said.
Solon city schools have also faced a lot of uncertainty during the pandemic, constantly recalibrating, said district spokeswoman Tamara Strom.
“Shortly after the pandemic began and it became clear that significant changes would be necessary for longer than a few weeks, we stressed the need to be flexible and fluid with our staff, families, and students. Managing expectations for our families has also been a challenge,” Strom said.
Strom noted the district’s adherence to upholding its expectations is a big reason many students have continued to perform at high levels, equivalent to district pre-pandemic performance.
“We continued to hold our students accountable for their attendance, participation, and performance all year regardless of whether they were learning in person or virtually from home,” Strom said. “We also believe that our educational model of live synchronous teaching was a significant factor as well.
Strom said she is confident any students who might have fallen behind should catch up relatively quickly.
“Students always received live, real-time instruction from their teachers as part of their daily instruction,” Strom said. “For those students who may be behind, we are confident they should be able to catch up relatively quickly….”
Strom applauded teachers and students for their flexibility and resiliency throughout the pandemic.
She noted how teachers expanded their competency in using technology from using the basic technology tools to create specialized mounts for webcams to utilize their cellphones and other tools to make windows into learning.
“Their ability to work with students who are learning remotely while at the same time working with students in person, while challenging, presented a huge growth opportunity for our staff. They have developed new and enhanced teaching skills due to the differences in remote and in-person learning,” Strom said. “It is easy to focus on the things lost in the pandemic, but we must also learn from and appreciate the innovations that filled the gaps.”
Strom said she misses the sights and sounds of students learning and collaborating the most.
“During the times our district was in all-remote learning, we missed our students being in the buildings in person every day,” Strom said.
With conditions improving and vaccines being rapidly available, the district has restored many of its end-of-year traditions like prom, commencement, field days, etc., with additional safety precautions.
“We have tried at every turn to reimagine the events and programming that we were not able to plan in the exact same way as we could before the pandemic so that we were still providing meaningful milestone events for students and families,” Strom said.
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