The Waterloo School District celebrated March Madness this year, but the staff members were not creating brackets, nor were the teams going head-to-head on a basketball court. Instead, the teams composed of staff members were taking up wellness challenges such as drinking 64 oz. of water daily, getting eight hours of sleep nightly, practicing self-care, and eating a fruit and vegetable at each meal.

The team with the most points was awarded a trophy.

This was just one of the initiatives taken this school year in an effort to help staff focus on well-being during a challenging year. Two district employees have been focused on finding ways to provide wellness outlets that not only help increase the physical and mental health of staff, but also provide ways to socially connect.

“We wanted to make the commitment to invest in healthy strategies in ways that would be fun for them to be involved,” said district fitness center and pool director Janessa Henning. “Whether it be healthy eating or exercise or self care or taking away stress or other ways to help them get through this stressful year.”

District office administrative assistant Beth Karnick said since the end of last school year and into this academic year, she and Henning had talked with staff that are facing the challenges of working during COVID-19.

The women, who both have health and wellness backgrounds, put together a few structured activities that “could potentially make things a lot better for staff and give them a little bit of an escape,” according to Karnick.

The pair launched Wake Up and Walk Waterloo as the first wellness initiative. Staff are invited to spend a half hour walking in the new fieldhouse beginning at 7:30 a.m. each Wednesday.

The administrative assistant said when the morning walking group began there were a handful of participants. At last week’s walk, the reported number of attendees was in the mid-30s.

Henning said the walking group also helps people who normally wouldn’t engage with each other the chance to talk and is able to bring a larger group together in one place while still practicing masking and social distancing.

Karnick said Wake Up and Walk Waterloo has been the most popular initiative along with dedicated fitness center hours for school staff offered for 30 minutes after school on Monday through Friday.

Additionally, Henning said the staff were invited to partake in an iron man challenge over the course of a month “so it’s a lot less stressful. And for those folks who maybe weren’t up for the iron man we did a walking challenge of walking 100 miles in a month.”

It’s not just physical wellness that the duo are focusing on. Several staff members also meet virtually as part of a podcast club, which Karnick describes as similar to a book club that meets in the evening roughly every two weeks. The attendees all listen to an episode of The Cabin, a podcast created by Discover Wisconsin, and then talk about it.

“It’s not a school-related topic and it’s just a fun way to chat with folks and give us an opportunity to see each other with our masks off because obviously we do it virtually,” Henning said.

One of the more popular parts of March Madness was the meditation and yoga sessions during self-care week. Karnick said people have requested having more offerings of a similar nature to help with relaxation and focus for mental wellness.

“It’s been a really positive response from the staff and definitely hearing from the people who like and enjoy those things and appreciate that piece of the work-life balance,” the administrative assistant said. “They appreciate that when they are at school, it’s not all work, all the time. We encourage them to take time for themselves and we recognize that’s important too.”

The pair also recognize that while people may want to focus on trying to exercise more, eat healthier or practice self-care, trying to plan and schedule those types of activities can fall by the wayside when people feel are facing stressful challenges.

“It can sometimes be easier to do these types of things if someone else is doing the legwork and all you have to do is show up,” Henning said. “That’s what we want to accomplish here. Staff just need to show up to participate or have a bit more focus on something they are already doing.”

Both women see the benefits of the wellness initiative going beyond the individual staff members.

“We find that staff who take the initiative to keep themselves healthy is going to be an integral part in keeping our buildings open,” the pool and fitness center director said. “Obviously, if they’re healthy, that helps keep us chugging along in the school year … and there was really an emphasis on keeping our staff healthy in ways other than just exercise.”

“When you have happy, well-balanced staff, it’s just a better work environment for everyone, especially the kids,” Karnick added.

Even after the pandemic subsides, the women plan to continue offering opportunities for staff to focus on their well-being.

“We can reuse what we’ve done this year, just like teachers can do with their lesson plans,” Henning said. “You do all the legwork ahead of time and in the upcoming year you just make it a little bit better or a little bit different.”

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