Only 49 percent of West Liberty High School students returned to face-to-face classroom education Tuesday, Feb. 16, despite the precautions the school district has outlined to keep students and teachers safe, Superintendent Dr. Diego Giraldo reported last week.
The number wasn’t surprising, he said, noting the independence of older students and virtual learning gives them more flexibility in their school day.
He said the numbers help keep things safer in the high school, although his preference is to get every student back into the buildings, understanding why some families have chosen differently.
The numbers are much different in the West Liberty Middle School and Elementary School, where 72 percent of students have returned to the middle school classrooms and 78 percent of first through fifth grade students. The Early Learning Center has offered in-person learning since the beginning of the school year.
Dr. Giraldo said the numbers at WLMS and the elementary school create spacing challenges the school isn’t always able to meet, using dividers to separate students when six-foot distancing isn’t possible, while continuing to require face mask usage, encouraging washing hands and equipping teachers with disinfectants and cleaning wipes.
Maintenance personnel in all four school buildings are constantly spraying disinfectant, sometimes between classes and wiping down everything students may have touched.
Dr. Giraldo said every building is different in the way they are coping with the pandemic, although he also feels a lot of pride in the situation since the Muscatine County Health Department visit to West Liberty on Feb. 6 when 180 staff members were provided their first shot of the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine. “We were very fortunate,” he said, noting the West Liberty district was the first school district in the county to be offered vaccinations as part of the county’s early planning stages.
The superintendent said the second round is scheduled for March 6 and anyone who didn’t get the first shot (including himself) will get an opportunity to get the first portion of the vaccine then.
He said teachers and faculty members were all encouraged to get the vaccine, but said it wasn’t “mandated,” noting everyone has to make up their own mind as to whether they want to take the vaccine, especially in the early stages of vaccinations. He said there were some district staff that were simply unable to get vaccinated in early February, having sickness in their family or other problems.
Dr. Giraldo said he was proud of the fact West Liberty was the first school district offered the vaccine in the county, noting the relationship between the county health department and the district is immeasurable, noting there have been conversations nearly every day between the two since the start of the pandemic in mid-March 2020 when students didn’t come back to the classroom after spring break.
“We’re very happy to have students back,” he said, noting that’s been the goal all along, despite the fact the school set up a special hybrid education plan for first grad students through seniors, youngsters in the district divided into two groups where one group went to in-person classes during the week while the other group learned from home virtually, everyone getting equipped with Internet access as well as Chromebook laptop computers.
Legislators in Iowa mandated students return to the classroom in late January, asking families to choose between virtual and live education. Students now in all-virtual mode can change at the end of the trimester on March 12 if desired.
Dr. Giraldo said while the hybrid model worked for most families, it was always a challenge – especially in the beginning – in figuring out which students to place in each grouping, along with classroom and busing logistics.
The superintendent said he is proud of every teacher, administrator, staff assistant, maintenance person, bus driver, school lunch personnel and the community for all their help in getting through an unprecedented school year that is just a few months away from another high school graduation.