The Lessons of a Challenging Year

COVID protocols might have changed how school looks, local administrators say, but it didn’t change what school means.

The U.S. education system has maintained a traditional structure for generations. Children took the bus to school or their parents drove carpools, educators created learning environments inside classrooms, and “school” was a tangible place in the community. In March 2020, however, when COVID-19 made its way around the world, this daily routine came to an abrupt halt.

Illustration by Kiki Ljung

As state governors decided to pause in-person schooling, Cincinnati area education leaders scrambled to adjust. Suddenly, school administrators were responsible for making sure every student had consistent access to a computer and a reliable internet connection, a safe and conducive space to work, and breakfast and lunch.

Some schools, like Seton High School and Elder High School, were already relying on technology in the classroom. Since both schools followed a one-to-one laptop structure for students and trained teachers in utilizing online platforms to upload assignments, the transition to remote learning was fairly seamless.

Newport Independent Schools in Northern Kentucky also had a one-to-one technology structure in place, but its teachers weren’t as familiar with facilitating class virtually. So additional technology literacy training was essential.

Other schools were even less familiar with online classrooms, and some struggled to provide students with access to a computer or tablet. Fortunately, administrators across Hamilton County were able to turn to the Hamilton County Educational Service Center (ESC) for support. “In some cases, we went to schools and helped them organize the computers they had available,” says Chad Hilliker, ESC superintendent. “In other cases, we provided technology to schools for students and helped run technology pickups in coordination with the school districts.”

With the help of business community partners, ESC was able to increase WiFi connection points across the county and even help some students acquire home personal WiFi devices in order to finish their classes for the semester. Similar strategic partnerships were created to ensure meals were available to every student as well.

The final three months of the 2020 school year were a blur, many administrators say, as students learned from home and community members around the region pitched in to make the transition as painless as possible. Eventually, state education departments announced that schools could return to in-person classes come fall, depending on each county’s rate of COVID infection, and schools utilized summer break to design additional strategies to ensure the health and safety of students, teachers, and staff.

These strategies included analyzing the ventilation systems in school buildings; assessing what the flow around classroom, cafeteria, and hallways looks like; and adjusting sports and extracurricular activity schedules. Desks were spaced six feet apart, lunch times were spaced out, and spectators were limited at sports games and other after-school events. Some schools even delayed reopening in the fall to make sure school was as safe as it could be.

“We delayed two weeks because we added a plasma air filtration system to our newly renovated facility,” says Kathy Allen Ciarla, president of Seton High School. “We’d upgraded our ventilation system two years prior, so we wanted to take the summer to make sure we could give our students additional layers of protection.”

Kurt Ruffing, principal at Elder High School, says he postponed his school’s reopening by a week for similar reasons. Elder also gave students the option to learn remotely or in person, which allowed students with older family members in their household, pre-existing medical conditions, or other concerns to prioritize the health of their family while still maintaining a quality education.

Students at Newport Independent Schools also had the option of learning virtually when in-person schooling resumed, says Superintendent Tony Watts. In the fall, only about 50 percent of students came to the buildings each day—half attended on Monday and Tuesday and the other half on Thursday and Friday in order to drastically decrease the amount of bodies coming in contact with each other and to carve out extensive time for sanitation and cleaning.

“Education hasn’t changed in a long time, and right now we had to adjust. We’re not going to go back to doing things the way we used to.” —TONY WATTS

Newport increased the number of students learning in person this spring to around 70 percent while still maintaining the split week schedule. While all of these efforts played a crucial role in diminishing the number of COVID-19 cases in each school district, they also significantly impacted the educational experience for students.

“It’s been a lot harder, because students can’t really interact the same way they did before,” says ESC’s Hilliker. “Even recess had to look a little bit different for the younger students. Activities like sports or band or choir had to look a little different.”

Watts says that learning via laptop can also increase burnout and fatigue, which makes it harder to focus on school work. So educators not only had to address the logistics of opening school during a pandemic, but they also prioritized students’ emotional well-being.

“Our counselors and school psychologists have really been focusing on the emotional part of their job that pertains to students,” says Ruffing. “There’s been a rise over the past several years across the nation to address students’ mental health, so they’re making a special attempt this year to meet with more students individually.”

Ruffing says he firmly believes students need to be together in the classroom to reap the full high school experience, though he acknowledges that remote learning offers its own benefits. Like Ciarla at Seton, he saw the positives of allowing a student to quarantine due to COVID-19 exposure while still attending classes virtually.

“There are times when it’s good for these students to learn remotely,” Ruffing says. “If a student is in the hospital for a week for maybe a surgery or an accident, whatever it may be, teachers now have the confidence to not only teach the students in their classroom but also someone who is at home. That’s where I see a really big change that will only benefit our students.”

When vaccinations were slowly rolled out in early 2021, administrators had to address yet another unprecedented challenge—how to vaccinate all of their teachers and staff in order to make in-person school as safe as possible. ESC was allotted almost 20,000 vaccines for both public and private schools across Hamilton County and organized and managed vaccination appointments for teachers and staff members. Once high school-aged students were eligible for the vaccine, the organization managed that process for county schools as well.

Now, with more and more teachers and students fully vaccinated and another school year approaching, administrators are reflecting on what they’ve learned from their newly implemented strategies that will shape the upcoming 2021–2022 school year. “Everything we did to prepare for this year was because we had to do things differently and had to think and teach another way,” says Newport’s Watts. “Education hasn’t changed in a long time, and right now we had to adjust. We’re not going to go back to doing things the way we used to.”

Hilliker believes that the educational adjustments necessary to combat COVID-19 proved how resilient students are. Regardless of which school they attend, he says, they’re always making the best out of any situation. Ciarla agrees, saying that the pandemic may have impacted how the school day works but not what school means. “We were so impressed with how our students adapted,” she says. “COVID-19 put a lot of restrictions in place and changed the way our school looked, but it did not change our core values or our school spirit.”

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