Waunakee superintendent Randy Guttenberg congratulates a student at the 2021 graduation.

The COVID-19 pandemic turned most people’s lives upside down and was especially challenging for schools. Now, school district administrators are pondering the useful lessons to take away from the experience.

Speaking to the Waunakee Rotary Club about the effects, particularly in Waunakee, school district administrator Randy Guttenberg recalled the Governor’s Safer at Home Order issued on March 24, 2000.

“We were starting spring break, and that was a point where our staff had just finished parent-teacher conferences. They were out the door. The governor made the announcement. We were thinking, ‘Great, we have spring break. We’re going to be awesome for a week,’” Guttenberg said.

But then Guttenberg began to ponder the possibility of it being extended another week and the reaction from parents.

The school community comprises 4,300 students in grades 4k-12, along with their families. Guttenberg said when he sends an email, it reaches 12,000 people.

Throughout the pandemic, the teaching staff did a phenomenal job, he said, utilizing four different instructional models. Very quickly at the onset, they adapted to a remote learning format.

“When you go back pre-pandemic, as far as like online learning, teachers had to be certified, they had to have some level of training before you could be a certified trainer at the high school to give credits to students,” Guttenberg said.

But in March 2020, in a week, administrators gave a primer on online learning instruction so all staff could jump in.

“So then, just within a few days, we had to get to a point where everybody had to have the technology,” he said.

Guttenberg called the district’s Dane County jurisdiction both a blessing and a challenge.

“The blessing was we had a lot of input. We had a lot of pieces from public health. We had a lot of guidelines,” he said, adding colleagues from other counties received little direction.

“A lot of folks would be contacting us to see what kind of guidance we were receiving,” he added.

Yet the health department’s orders and ensuing court challenges and rulings elicited strong reactions among parents.

“The moment those [orders] changed, my email lit up,” Guttenberg said, as parents asked about the district's next policies. He gave credit to Waunakee school board members’ endurance as they met weekly during approximately four months of changing guidelines.

School administrators learned several lessons from the pandemic, he added.

No. 1, that many families in the community have needs and not all are equal. The most apparent need was for internet service as the district moved to online learning, forcing administrators to provide 120 hotspots to families.

“In order for us to teach them, we had to get through that hurdle,” Guttenberg said.

Remote learning became the "unequalizer," he said, and in the long term, ensuring the district can serve all families, regardless of their internet access, will be important.

About 10 percent of the students in the district are eligible for free and reduced lunch, so without those noon meals offered in school, learning could be an issue. The district responded, and between Sept. 1, 2020 and June 2021, provided 14,000 meals.

Even prior to the pandemic, stress, anxiety and depression were on the rise among students. The past year only exacerbated those feelings as students were unable pursue their hopes and dreams in sports, performing arts or other avenues.

“A big part of what our staff had to do is build connections with kids,” Guttenberg said, adding that they will need to continue those connections.

Students and staff also faced challenges as they returned to in-person learning, and Guttenberg said he expects that will be the case as the district returns to a five days per week schedule in the fall.

And yet some students thrived with remote learning and will want to continue an e-learning format in the future.

While many perceived students as becoming “Zoomed out” during the pandemic, they were actually learning some skills they’ll use in the workforce.

“They had to learn the technology, which is now going to be a life skill. They had to learn a lot of the employability skills we otherwise couldn’t teach: independence, responsibility, time management, things that we weren’t there every day to hold their hands in class,” Guttenberg said.

He added that he would not recommend remote learning for all students, but administrators know it now has to be an option.

Overall, the pandemic forced us to slow down. Guttenberg said he has had some concerns about students being overscheduled in a district with a rigorous school curriculum and their own extracurricular pursuits. He said he hopes as a society, we can see the benefits of having some free time as families sit down together for dinner again.

Right now, Guttenberg sees division in the community, he said.

“And when I look at that just from an organizational standpoint, we’re normally a very collaborative culture; we work very well together with our staff,” he said.

But the pandemic afforded no time for collaboration as problems needed to quickly be solved.

“You had to make decisions; you had to move forward. And that caused a lot of angst. It caused angst with our staff, with our parents, with the community,” Guttenberg said.

Now the question is how can we find ways to heal from all of the experiences we’ve had together during the last 18 months?

“And how do we come together as community around some of the issues?” Guttenberg asked.

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