Column: Pandemic brings some positives

Kylie Schepers/The Herald
While this school year may not have turned out how many had hoped due to the pandemic, there was some good that came from all the virus-related changes. Southridge High School performed its spring musical, "Bright Star," at Lincoln Amphitheatre, a beautiful location that the school otherwise wouldn’t have used. In this photo, Ellie Bowman sings to Richard Gutierrez, both 15 and both of Huntingburg, during musical rehearsals at the amphitheater earlier this month.

By MARTHA RASCHE
Special to The Herald

The school year that ends this month is not the one we would have wished for. After living with the coronavirus pandemic for more than 14 months, we all could list reasons why not.

What I did, on the other hand, was reach out to Dubois County junior and senior high schools and ask what good has been born this school year. What have been some beneficial programs, activities and collaborations that wouldn’t have happened were it not for COVID-19?

The feedback I got covers a broad range. In most cases, the social worker I initially contacted consulted with her co-workers before responding, and the replies touch on student behavior, school-community relationships, outgrowths of e-learning and myriad other subjects.

More than one school mentioned that though student and staff resiliency was tested again and again, most students and staff found and adapted to each new normal quickly. Wearing masks, maintaining social distance, following an altered lunch schedule, sitting in different seats — these changes started last fall and have gone on all school year.

Cam Allen, a sophomore at Southridge High School, found himself eating at a lunch table with only two friends rather than the usual five. Group projects were eliminated. And as a member of the baseball team, he has to wear a mask in the dugout and said one of the biggest challenges might be giving up sunflower seeds; they have been disallowed so as to eliminate spitting.

While dealing with the ongoing modifications has left some students disgruntled, Cam isn’t one of them. He and his mother both had COVID for about a week in November, and he is glad for the opportunity to help keep others safe.

With each change, he said, “it’s tough, but I know that it’s something that needs to be done. And I know that other kids need a role model to see that it needs to be done, so I kind of take on that role.”

I asked if he has had any other life experiences in his 16 years that have tested his resilience.

“Nothing as big as COVID,” he said.

Because of the virus, Forest Park High School had two casts for its spring musical. While allowing for stand-ins in case any actors had to be quarantined at showtime, double casting also meant that more students could participate.

Keeping in mind the ability of audience members to socially distance, Southridge performed its spring musical at Lincoln Amphitheatre, a beautiful location that the school otherwise wouldn’t have used.

Throughout the school year, students and staff throughout the county were pushed out of their comfort zones and created new ways of learning.

“We have learned so many skills with technology that we would have never learned if it weren’t for the pandemic,” Forest Park social worker Audrey Fleck said.

When learning moved online for the conclusion of last school year, community organizations opened their doors for students to use their Wi-Fi, she added.

In the Northeast Dubois County School Corporation, social worker Paige Mundy said that as students have become “much more comfortable” with technology, they have been able to use it in more ways. Besides using the virtual classroom during quarantine, students who have missed school because of another illness, surgery or a death in the family also have been able to keep up with schoolwork virtually.

When a water main break in the school corporation in January sent the junior and senior high school students home, they, too, were able to receive instruction virtually. When juniors and seniors involved in decorating and otherwise preparing for the prom missed that day of school, “they typically would have had the anxiety of picking between missing an important class or prom preparation,” according to Mundy. This year, all upperclassmen were given virtual assignments on prom day, so “they had the flexibility to complete those assignments when it worked best.”

Mundy also mentioned that a number of students have told her that having their lessons online “gives them the ability to go back and rewatch lessons while doing homework if there was something they didn't quite understand. You don't have that option when you are in person for instruction.”

Justin Leathers, a seventh-grader at Southridge, liked that his sports competitions also were filmed. The number of spectators permitted at his basketball games, for example, was limited, so posting the games online allowed more viewers. Justin took the opportunity to review the films later, which helped him realize that he wasn’t creating shots for himself the way he’d like but that he was generally successful at driving the ball and getting it to teammates.

Justin and a friend sometimes scouted upcoming opponents by watching their online films.

When Justin’s mom, Shelly, attended her daughter Clair’s basketball game on a night when Justin had a game too, she would watch the online version of Justin’s competition — live-streamed by the father of one of Justin’s teammates, complete with commentary — “so I could see both the games at once without having to miss the other one.”

Sometimes Shelly listened to Justin’s games on the drive home.

“If you weren’t able to be at the game, you could still truly understand what went on at the game,” she said. “Other than just a brief conversation with your kid, you actually heard about how the whole game went.”

That knowledge then helped her start a dialogue with Justin about it later.

All of the school corporations reported an increased awareness of mental health and well-being this school year by both staff and students, and some mentioned staff and students having more empathy for each other.

At Northeast Dubois, self-care and stress relief became a focus, and some teachers had surprise self-care days in the classroom that featured movies, games, fidget toys, arts and crafts and, of course, snacks.

In the Southwest school corporation, healthcare staffing increased in all buildings this school year, with some of it expected to carry over in the future.

The school year started with corporationwide nurse Kate LaMar on maternity leave and five or six nurses filling shifts for her. A full-time health assistant was at the elementary school.

As the months passed, the extra nurses fanned out to all of the schools — primarily assisting with contact tracing of those who tested positive for the coronavirus as well as tracking and documenting students’ absences, test dates and return dates. The substitute nurses also helped manage the students with chronic conditions who had to be kept isolated in separate rooms.

As parents and staff had virus-related questions and quandaries, the number of phone calls to and from the health offices increased considerably.

With the part-time nurses kept on after LaMar’s return, LaMar had time to talk with students, reassure them in the face of the pandemic and the uncertainty it brought with it, and address any issues they needed or wanted to discuss.

“I feel like I’ve built more relationships over this time, during COVID,” LaMar said. “Kids have come to me with concerns and I’ve built more relationships with them, just to talk through things.”

“The kids, I feel, are a little more open,” Southridge High School Assistant Principal Greg Werner added. “There was an open dialogue. The nurses that we pulled in allowed (the students) to be comfortable in discussing what they were going through. I think it also gave them a sense of comfort in knowing that a nurse was there to … help them know that everything would be OK: ‘We’re here to take care of you.’”

A couple of school principals reported a decrease in student discipline problems this school year. Werner said physical fighting, in particular, was down.

This resulted in part from the students being “tied down into a classroom” with supervision from as soon as they showed up to school until the time they left, with the exception of passing periods between classes.

Self-discipline tends to be better, he said, if students are in a routine, and in-person schooldays this year have been nothing if not structured. (Southridge has had in-person classes all but 12 days.)

Another principal noted that nonverbal communication that can set off or egg on an argument is harder to perceive from behind facial masks.

Overall, Werner said, the novelty of learning from home wore off a year ago, and most students realized they wanted to be in the classroom.

“Ninety percent of them would rather be at school than sitting at home trying to learn. They want that normalcy,” he said, explaining that having that frame of reference is another reason for improved behavior.

“Kids understood that we’re lucky to be in school. We appreciate being in school,” he said. “There was a culture of caring about one another and being more empathetic.”

What upsides to the pandemic have you experienced? For potential use in a future column, send your ideas to Martha at mtrasche@twc.com or call her at 812-630-8992.




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