Cedar Rapids schools prepare for a different start to the school year due to COVID-19, derecho


Cedar Rapids students have less than a week before the school year starts on Sept. 21, and this year will look very different due to precautions and planning to address the COVID-19 pandemic and damage left by the derecho.

The Cedar Rapids Community School District decided last month to start the school year later than usual due to the Aug. 10 derecho. All of the district’s buildings saw some level of storm damage, with high school buildings having some of the worst.

The original plan was to prioritize in-person instruction for elementary schools due to students’ developmental needs and the limited derecho damage to most elementary buildings.

Because some of the buildings were repaired faster than expected, the district announced earlier this month that all elementary school students who selected in-person instruction will be able to begin the school year in their respective schools. Families had the option for in-person or virtual instruction for the upcoming school year.

The three middle schools — Harding, Wilson and Roosevelt — that were originally going to house elementary school students will now be used for their own students. The students in these schools will be able to have in-person instruction if that was their return-to-learn choice.

Students in the other middle schools — Franklin, McKinley and Taft — will begin the school year online. Franklin and McKinley are expected to be repaired and safe for in-person instruction by Nov. 16 and Taft by Jan. 4.

All high school students, except for Metro High School students, will begin the year online. The three high schools are expected to be repaired and safe for in-person instruction by Jan. 4.

“We were surprised by the 21 elementary schools being able to accelerate, so our hope is that the remaining buildings will also be able to accelerate with the condition that they’re in,” Superintendent Noreen Bush said during the district’s Board of Education meeting on Monday.

Bush said 52 percent, or about 8,552 students across the district, chose in-person instruction as part of their return to learn plan, as of Sept. 9. This is lower than a couple of weeks ago when 65 percent of families had in-person selected, Bush said.

What Cedar Rapids families selected for their students as part of the Return to Learn plan. This data was presented at the Board of Education’s meeting on Sept. 14. — screengrab

Bush added that the number of families selecting the “no choice” option has “increased significantly.” About 13 percent of families selected no choice.

“The largest percentage is at the high school level,” Bush said about families selecting no choice. “Our assumption is that data changed in the past couple of weeks because the only option really being provided to high school families is the online option at our three comprehensive high schools because of the building damage that they’re still suffering.”

Bush said designing staffing according to families’ choices has been a “moving target.” Families submitted their return to learn choice in early August. After the derecho, the district allowed families until Sept. 11 to change their original choice if they wanted to.

Families are asked to stay with their selected choice until Oct. 12, Deputy Superintendent Nicole Kooiker said during Monday’s board meeting.

“We also want to give students a choice in their environment to see if it actually works for them before we have those requests for shifts,” Kooiker said.

In-person class size is about 20 students for elementary and middle school, Kooiker said. However, minimizing the amount of students in person has meant an increase in the size of virtual classrooms.

“At our elementary [level], we have larger sections now mid-30s to 40s,” Kooiker said. “With that said, we’ve shifted how we’re offering that instruction so teachers are still doing full-day teaching but they’re doing a morning full-engagement session with maybe a group of 23 students, and then in the afternoon, they’ll have a different 23 students that they’ll be engaging with. … At our middle school, those cohorts are a little bit larger, we’re working through some of that situation.”

The district has opened seven internet hubs around Cedar Rapids for students who are doing virtual learning and need internet. These hubs are for students who attend Jefferson, Kennedy, Washington, Franklin, McKinley or Taft, according to the district.

The hubs will be open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and each location will have staff available to provide support and assistance to students.

• Jane Boyd, 943 14th Avenue SE

• Paul Engel Center, 1600 4th Ave SE

• Four Oaks, 1924 D Street SW

• Four Oaks, 2100 1st Avenue NE

• First Lutheran Church, 1000 3rd Ave SE

• Cedar Rapids Public Library, 450 5th Ave SE

• Salvation Army Community Center, 1000 C Ave NW

Board member Jennifer Borcherding asked when the district will begin to see financial implications from the COVID-19 pandemic and the derecho.

Because new issues are coming up every day, Bush replied, it’s hard to tell. She estimated the situation will become clearer sometime in the spring, after the district finds out what FEMA and insurance will cover.

But David Nicholson, the district’s executive director of business services, said prospects aren’t necessarily hopeful.

“It’s not sounding really favorable right now that we’re going to get any funding through FEMA, so that’s the big unknown right now because a lot of those dollars that we were hopefully going to use FEMA for might have to shift back into CARES [funding], which will greatly impact that.”

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