HARTINGTON — Life drastically changed in Cedar County and around the nation one year ago this week.
On March 16, 2020, local schools held their last in-person classes of the year as the coronavirus crept into Nebraska.
The pandemic wiped out the rest of the school year, shut down all extra curricular activities, vanquished all high school proms and delayed all area high school graduations until late summer.
All college sports and national sports leagues also pulled the plug on their seasons.
As FINS Supt. A.J. Johnson was saying goodbye to teachers at the end of the school day on March 16, 2020, he was hopeful school would be able to resume as normal in a few weeks, but he told teachers as they left that day to be prepared Just in case.
Now, 367 days later, life is slowly starting to resemble the pre-pandemic life we knew.
In an effort to normalize things here, teachers and staff at Hartington-Newcastle schools received their first Moderna vaccinations March 4. Their second shot is scheduled Just before the start of Easter Break. Johnson said about two-thirds of the school’s staff and teachers signed up for the vaccinations.
Holy Trinity and Cedar Catholic faculty and staff members will receive the first dose of the vaccine this Friday, March 19 at the school. Approximately 75 percent of the school’s teachers have signed up to receive the vaccine.
A lot of lessons were learned last year and not Just by students. Public health workers, teachers and school, and government officials all faced a huge learning curve,
“Obviously, last year, the pandemic hit us by surprise and we were not prepared to transition to remote learning for the last quarter of the year,” said Cedar Catholic and Holy Trinity Principal Chris Uttecht. “This year, however, teachers were much more prepared after experiencing remote learning last year and making additional preparations this past summer.”
Fortunately, Uttecht said, the schools did not have to go back into a remote learning environment for all students. The experiences they learned last year did help them to help educate the various students who were out quarantining part of this school year, though.
“The biggest challenge for teachers this year was having students quarantined and still trying to keep them on track by teaching through Google Classroom. Not only did teachers have to prepare for the students in class, they also had to make plans for the students at home,” Uttecht said.
He said the pandemic taught people to appreciate in-person classes.
“All of our teachers would agree that the benefits of having students in school face-to-face far outweigh the challenges we have faced,” he said.
For the most part, the safety measures the state and local schools put in place have worked well to contain the virus.
“One thing I think is sometimes forgotten is that the safety precautions put into place were not meant to completely eliminate the coronavirus, but instead to slow the spread and transmission and keep our school open,” Uttecht said.
Uttecht said one of the reasons schools have been able to stay open is the mask mandate and other policy changes, including social distancing.
“Requiring masks in school allowed us to continue “normal” operations even when a student or teacher has tested positive for COVID,” Uttchet said. “In the event of a positive case and the lack of masks, every close contact would have needed to be quarantined for up to 14 days, which could have extended to an entire grade level or more, which could have ultimately closed the school for a time.”
In addition to requiring masks at all times, students are encouraged to wash their hands and use hand sanitizer regularly, and the public areas of the buildings are disinfected using electrostatic sprayers daily.
Johnson said a concerted effort between students, teachers, staff and the community has helped to keep the doors open at Hartington-Newcastle this year.
“Everybody has played a part in helping us stay in school this year,” Johnson said. “Thanks to the way everyone has pulled together, it looks like we’ve got a good chance of finishing out the year.”
Unfortunately, safety can come at a cost, as the students have not been allowed to intermingle much this year.
‘We don’t allow as much interaction between the Holy Trinity and Cedar Catholic and as a result, Holy Trinity students have been eating lunch in their classrooms all year. We also have not been able to have all school Masses as often,” Uttecht said. ‘We still try to have first Friday Masses together in the activity center, but last year we had combined Masses nearly every other week. One positive aspect that we’ve observed with the implementation of these safety precautions is fewer absences overall due to illness this year.”
While the safety measures worked well for the most part, the virus was able to take hold here in November as both Holy Trinity and Cedar Catholic had a high number of positive cases and quarantines in November and early December and the school was forced to postpone the first two basketball games due to students missing because of COVID related issues.
Once the students returned after Christmas, there were very few cases and quarantines, Uttecht said, adding “it almost made us forget that we’re still in a pandemic.”
Uttecht said the pandemic taught Cedar Catholic teachers and administrators how to better use technology.
“Something we implemented that we will continue relates to our use of technology. At the start of this year, all students at Cedar Catholic were assigned a laptop for the year to use on a daily basis. Although we didn’t allow students to take their laptops home unless they were quarantined, getting their laptop at the beginning of each day prevented disruptions to other classrooms as students no longer needed to go into other classrooms to retrieve a computer. Students also took more ownership as they used the same laptop each day.
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