In the year’s time since the pandemic forced schools nationwide to shut down, area educators recall a sense of togetherness as staff have navigated unprecedented challenges with students’ best interests at heart.

McNeel Intermediate Principal Michelle Hendrix-Nora said she will always remember Friday, March 13, 2020.

“It’s just the uncertainty that we didn’t know when we would come back,” Hendrix-Nora said. “‘Let’s roll up the sleeves and let’s get to work. What do we need to do? That was our mindset.”

Teachers were untrained for distance learning, but that didn’t stop them from trying. They began by calling families at home and taking crash courses on using online platforms.

“They went way above and beyond for what the students need,” Hendrix-Nora said. “I think they’ve adjusted really well.”

While virtual learning was new for everyone, many students were already highly proficient with using technology and sometimes were faster than the adults at home, Hendrix-Nora said.

“Families have made a huge adjustment,” Hendrix-Nora said.

During the last year, staff have continually refined their distance learning methods and streamlined the model using programs like Seesaw, Zoom and Google.

Staff also made home visits as needed, and having technical support available and other assistance handy through the Beloit Public Library has been truly valuable, Hendrix-Nora said.

It has been undeniably hard for students and staff to miss out on events like eighth grade graduation in 2020 and to be separated from their usual social circles. However, Hendrix-Nora said she feels hopeful for students to return safely.

“I think we’re going to use this and take some positive things out of it,” she said.

Beloit Memorial High School Principal Emily Pelz recalled when schools closed in March 2020, she figured staff would return by the following Monday.

“I remember it vividly,” Pelz said. “At that time we knew things were beginning to become more restrictive, and that week we were begging to get messages about the cancellations of school plays, and some of those things. We didn’t expect it to last a year.”

At the time, there was no virtual learning system in place.

“At first it was this element of surprise. And then it was this feeling of urgency, and ‘we need to do something,’” Pelz said. “We just really had to rally together very quickly to put something together for students and families. It was an all-hands-on-deck approach.”

Staff at the high school threw their focus into redeveloping curriculum based on programs like Skyward and Google Classroom, teaching students how to use it along the way as they learned themselves.

“Everything has had to be digitized now. That definitely was different,” Pelz said. “Everyone has been putting in more than 100% effort.”

A bonus, Pelz noted, is that some students have benefited from having access to class materials online, because they can refer back to class readings while working on assignments, which reinforces their learning.

Another upside, Pelz said, is that students have been able to take more of their most preferred classes online, because of no seating limitations. Distance learning has also made it easier for some students to pick up extra hours of work outside of school or be able to look after their younger siblings.

In the future, Pelz foresees teachers will continue offering virtual options while using technology more consistently.

However, there has been a down side to online learning. In a recent report to the Beloit School District school board, 17.2% of students in the district were considered “students of concern,” meaning they engaged in less than 49% of weekly instruction activities in term 1.

The School District of Beloit is preparing to switch to a hybrid model in April, with the school district offering a blend of both online and in-person learning.

Parkview School District Administrator Steve Lutzke recalled when school shut down in March 2020, he was immediately in disbelief, followed by panic and concern.

“COVID-19 came on so fast, we didn’t really have time to prepare in advance,” Lutzke said.

On March 11, 2020, Lutzke told his administrative team to be ready for schools to close within a week. When Governor Tony Evers announced a “Safer at Home” order, they had expected three weeks of shutdown instead of an extended closure.

In the days and weeks that followed, Lutzke said administrative staff worked closely with teachers and parents to shift to virtual learning.

Parkview teachers, who had never before taught virtually, turned to platforms like Zoom and Google Classroom. Students in grades 7 through 12 brought their Chromebooks home as usual. All elementary students were also given iPads and Chromebooks to take home.

By March 23, Parkview went all online.

“Teachers learned on the fly how to engage students,” Lutzke said. “A portion of each day was committed to the social and emotional well being of each student.”

Lutzke ordered 25 U.S. Cellular hotspots and distributed them to families in need, then ordered 40 more after realizing there weren’t enough to go around.

Families were also able to drive up to the district office parking lot for free Wi-Fi access.

The district even set up a hotline for parents to call in for tech support.

Lutzke said he is proud of the school board for being supportive of staff and making science-based decisions and the Parkview administrative team for remaining level-headed. He also extended his gratitude to parents for being patient and understanding.

“The heavy lifters have been Parkview teachers,” Lutzke said. “They had to relearn how to teach through the virtual forum. Just like the admin team, they put in extra time creating lessons, learning new technology and connecting with students and parents.”

But more importantly, Lutzke said, he is proud of the students for giving it their best effort.

“They have lost so much in the past year—events like prom, sports, field trips and more importantly social interaction with their classmates and teachers. They have weathered this storm like giants,” Lutzke said.

Even once the pandemic ends, Lutzke said Parkview will continue to offer virtual instruction options while prioritizing face-to-face learning. The district has submitted an application to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction for a grant to launch a virtual charter school.

When schools moved online last March, Turner High School Principal Christopher Koeppen recalls a unified front among staff.

In between meetings and virtual learning, staff mentored one another on how to manage various technologies. Koeppen said every teacher facilitated every core subject and cooperated hand-in-hand to assign work to students.

“Teachers came together and worked more closely as a team than they ever have before,” Koeppen said. “I just have an overall sense of gratitude for working with the district. Everyone has really come together and risen to the challenge.”

Google Classrooms has been the primary tool at Turner, between distance learning and hybrid models in the last year.

Each student has their own Chromebook at home, which Koeppen said greatly helped with transitioning between in-person and virtual learning as needed.

Throughout the pandemic, teachers have checked in with each student periodically via Zoom or phone, serving as coaches in their own way.

“There’s a really strong level of intimacy that comes into play when you’re in each other’s living rooms and you’re doing school,” Koeppen said. “For a lot of our students and a lot of our teachers it’s really helped build a level of understanding and compassion for each other as humans and our individual circumstances.”

Koeppen said he anticipates synchronized learning for in-person and online students will likely remain an option in the long-term, along with students having immediate access to online class materials.

“When you only have so much time with students and when you get access to kids, it’s taught as how to be efficient and purposeful with that time,” Koeppen said. “Students have been learning a ton in addition to our core curriculum, and teachers’ calendars are packed full from the time they arrive to school to the time they leave, and even after.”