“We’re in this together.”
That was one of the first statements that came from West Liberty School District Superintendent of Schools Dr. Diego Giraldo as he learned of the wild spread of a pandemic known as COVID-19 in mid-March and braced families and staff in the district for a series of “unknowns” that would change the way education, sports and extra curricular activities are completed in the community.
It’s the Index’s 2020 Story of the Year! The worldwide pandemic, COVID-19, started in China and has now claimed over 350,000 American lives – mostly older adults – including many from West Liberty and Muscatine County, numbers soaring on positive cases up to near 40 percent as the first citizens in the county get a quickly-produced vaccine that is expected to be at least 95 percent effective.
The rollout of residents getting the vaccine will depend on supply and demand in Muscatine County as everyone is encouraged to get the vaccine – some already having taken the first of two shots including local first responders and senior citizens in the Simpson Home in West Liberty this Friday.
The pandemic – the first since the Spanish flu in the very early 1900’s – changed all of our lives, cancelling major events like the Muscatine County Fair, Fair Parade, a Rotary GALA fundraiser as well as first responder, school and organization fundraisers and more. Social events like weddings, funerals and even church services changed or were totally cancelled month after month.
Things citizens normally took for granted, like West Liberty High School’s graduation or Homecoming, were done in a whole different way to keep people safe. Everyone eventually put on face masks to stop the spread of germs. We all learned to wash our hands for 20 seconds and became educated about social distancing – everyone asked to stay six feet apart and not gather in large groups. The Rotary Club of West Liberty even launched a "Stop the Spread" campaign, buying and issuing masks throughout the community and other organizations donated toward virus killing disinfectants and giving money to the schools to buy face masks for students and other necessary supplies to clean classrooms, buses and other facilities.
It affected sports – many high school events not even taking place last year like spring soccer as well as track and field. Softball and baseball got things back on track and seasons were completed, but football saw two games cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns
The pandemic is expected to still be around through mid-summer, although Muscatine County Health has already designated vaccination centers at West Liberty High School and Middle School on Saturdays once the vaccines arrive.
Iowa Republican Governor Kim Reynolds has attempted to keep businesses open as much as possible through the pandemic, setting rules and regulations that were more lenient than some neighboring states like Illinois, which closed many of it’s restaurants, bars and businesses for many weeks.
Preparing for virtual education
The school district may not have even realized they were already starting to prepare for the pandemic when they ordered the over 200 Google Chromebook laptop computers for students, trying to fill a void in a designated program to provide better education for students, adding a big chunk to their inventory.
But it was March 19 when the pandemic hit the area, all four schools in the community shutting down for an initial four weeks, although still providing delivered lunch and breakfast programs for youngsters. Even Muscatine County facilities closed and West Liberty’s City Hall closed throughout the year when outbreaks took place, many staff members forced to work from home.
An across the nation shortage of highly demanded Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) hit the local ambulance department in early April, fearing calls about the virus although many were told to contact their local physician, tests just beginning to come into reality as overwhelmed hospitals braced themselves with respirators – which were also in short supply – and medical and health personnel were all learning about this new strain of sickness that could potentially take lives.
Churches close, preach virtually
For the first time in decades and maybe ever, local churches closed their doors – pastors providing virtual services for Easter and regular Sunday services. City council and school board meetings turned to Zoom virtual events, as did meetings of organizations like Rotary Club of West Liberty.
West Liberty Foods, unlike other major food producers in the state, battled through the pandemic, reaching as many as nearly 40 employees getting the virus at one time, although quickly figuring out ways to keep their hundreds of employees safe at the largest employer in the community. The plant actually even slowed production at one point, temporarily furloughing over 300 employees and asking local farmers to slow production of turkeys, pointing out the demand for their product had slowed.
The West Liberty Chamber of Commerce got creative in bringing the Easter Bunny to local communities in the back of a pick-up after regular egg hunts were cancelled. The local police departments warned residents of pandemic scams.
Other organizations got creative as well, like the West Liberty FFA Chapter, which set a model for the state in selling spring gardening plants. Youths wrote letters to Simpson residents cooped up in their nursing home facility, making their days brighter and the facility figured out how to keep friends and family visiting without contamination.
In early May, West Liberty and other local firemen honored the father of a member of their first responder team when he died of COVID-19.
After getting a initial federal government stimulus check, business bail-out packages and funds to help schools and local governments, the school district made a purchase utilizing some of those funds to buy another 500 Chromebooks to make sure every student in the district could accomplish virtual education, including adding Wi-Fi internet hot spots, some offered to local families unable to afford the Internet.
The district, which did not make any demands on students through the end of the 2019-20 school year because of the pandemic and the fact they couldn’t be fair in offering virtual education for all, graduated the entire senior class and set plans for a “virtual graduation” where every senior got their diploma in private, following an all new “graduation parade” that rolled through town in late May.
Library offers limited services
The West Liberty Public Library, which had been closed for weeks, promoted a new five-step plan to get back to normal, allowing residents an opportunity to get books although unable to use the facility – a haven for youth after school hours – even to date.
The Muscatine County Fair, and all the amenities that came with it, was cancelled – turning to a virtual fair for FFA and 4-H livestock and project showings, although the fairgrounds did host a few stock car and harness horse racing events. One of the bigger surprises came in the form of live youth livestock shows known as “Memory Makers,” where local youths got a chance to compete throughout the county – all the shows taking place at the fairgrounds. It was not supported as a MC Fair event.
Lots of summer activities were cancelled – including the community pool at Kimberly Park, director Nick Heath unable to convince the city council he could safely open the facility to families, although playgrounds finally became available after being shut down for weeks, families cautioned to use health safety practices.
Start of school delayed
The school district, working with the county health department and Dr. Giraldo’s team of staff members, decided to delay the start of school for two weeks until Sept. 10 while schools made sure everything was in place for a new learning environment that gave families plenty of options – from being taught in a total virtual world to getting educated in a hybrid model – going to school to learn live in the classroom one week and getting taught from home virtually the next, the district dividing students into two separate groups. In the meanwhile, preschool and kindergarten students at the Early Learning Center were all going to get live classroom education, the school capable of spreading students out enough to allow teachers the room necessary in keeping the environment safe.
Teachers had to adjust quickly and that they did – working long hours to insure students got their lessons and continued learning. But an outbreak of COVID-19 among teachers forced the district to shut down facilities in November, not having enough staff members or substitutes to take classes, forcing the district to apply with the state for total virtual education status, even though on a temporary basis. But the district got things back to a hybrid model before Christmas.
In the meanwhile, the district is studying the affects of the educational changes on students, making adjustments in things like high school credit requirements and testing at all levels.
From a business aspect, many stores have remained closed throughout the entire pandemic – especially retail – and restaurants, although many allowing inside seating, have even closed their doors from time to time, many relying on carryout or delivery services. In the meanwhile, the Chamber is working to create special events and encouraging local shopping, from buying gift cards to hosting special community attractions like a Christmas lighting contest. The Chamber, too, had to cancel its annual open house event that typically drew hundreds to the community before the Thanksgiving weekend.
All in all, COVID-19 turned all of our lives upside down and all were toasting a welcome farewell to 2020 on New Years Eve, looking for a brighter future in 2021. And, yes, we were all in this together!