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School district preps for total in-person learning

Buildings for Marshalltown High School and Miller Middle School will soon be more full with students than they have since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

The Marshalltown Community School District will begin 100 percent in-person learning for grades seven through 12 on Tuesday, and educators have stressed commitment to safety measures limiting students and staff to COVID-19 exposure.

“The district has been working hard to further accommodate our students and their families; relative to their return to learn needs, desires and plans with the governor and legislature having recently mandated all students who are willing and able to return to school daily,” Superintendent Theron Schutte said.

Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a bill into law Jan. 29 requiring all Iowa schools to offer an in-person learning option, effectively ending Marshalltown Schools’ hybrid learning option for seven- through 12-grade students and giving the district two weeks to prepare to offer a fully in-person learning option.

Marshalltown High School Principal Jacque Wyant said some teachers have expressed fears over a fully in-person learning option being offered before they’ve received a COVID-19 vaccine.

“They looked at me and said, ‘We’re doing this before we even have the vaccines?’ and I’m like, ‘Don’t look at me, I didn’t make this decision. Dr. Schutte didn’t make this decision. There’s someone way above all of this that made this decision,'” Wyant said.

She is excited to see more students back in class rooms, and will maintain COVID-19 mitigation efforts such as block scheduling, masks requirements, temperature monitoring, desk shields, maintaining social distancing and restricting hallway traffic to a one-way flow.

Some teachers have revisited their classroom layout, rearranging furniture to adequately social distance when more students are back in the classroom. Arrival and dismissal procedures will be closely monitored to ensure students aren’t huddling up in groups before school begins, and lunch procedures will also be revisited to look to add desk shields to the cafeteria.

Returning to a fully in-person learning option has given some the impression all school activities will return to normal, such as having prom and graduation as usual. However, Wyant wants students and parents to know the district will not get ahead of themselves.

“Nobody is trying to pre-empt anything too quickly here,” Wyant said. “Because all we’re gonna have to do is go backwards and that would be pretty disappointing to people if we hop out of our mitigation too soon or decrease any strategies too soon, and then have to resume those practices because we see a spike in positive cases.”

The biggest challenge facing the return to fully in-person learning is maintaining social distancing of 3 to 6 feet, said Director of Instruction Lisa Stevenson.

“That’s probably been the biggest concern,” Stevenson said. “We’ve been working with the principals and the teachers to really reinforce the message that we are still going to continue to practice, and model and expect that our kids practice social distancing.”

Stevenson said principals have reported very few serious issues of students not complying with COVID-19 mitigation efforts, and is pleased by how well students and staff have adapted to changes.

Social distancing on school buses will be a greater challenge with more students to pick up on routes, but Director of Transportation Rex Kozak said he and his team has been prepared for the change.

Some school bus routes have been forced to be doubled routed, in which a bus driver picks up one half of kids in the route to drop them off, and then circles around to get the other half in order to maintain a social distance of 3 feet on buses and disinfecting seats in between routes.

“We have a great team down here of drivers and monitors that take everything very serious and look out for their own safety as well as the students,” Kozak said. “They really don’t mind the double routing if that means that they’re staying safe and the kids are staying safe.”

Another reason routes are forced to be doubled is due to a shortage in bus drivers and bus monitors on staff. More routes may need to be double routed if more extracurricular activities start back up, with bus drivers allocated to transportation between events. With the current shortage of bus monitors, enforcing social distancing measures on busses becomes harder, Kozak said.

“The driver can’t be looking back every five seconds to see if they’re socially distanced,” Kozak said. “Kids are social, and we’re asking them to keep that distance, but it’s hard for them.”

Implementing the use of Stopfinder, a smartphone app allowing users to track the location of buses and set alerts when the buses are nearing their stop, Kozak said the app will be a huge help to families.

“These routes are very fluid, as kids and parents change their mind about going and not going. Our routes may be affected because we may have to add another stop or drop a stop,” Kozak said. “We try to get that information out the best we can, but it happens almost on a daily basis. We appreciate the flexibility of families, and them just letting us know when their kids are riding our not.”

Contact Trevor Babcock at 641-753-6611 or tbabcock@timesrepublican.com.

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