Teachers, students and administrators at Waconia schools are taking a holiday break from classes this week. Last year at this time, they were uncertain if and when they would ever be back in class.

It’s been a roller coaster year with the COVID-19 pandemic still on the doorstep. A year ago, classes were put on pause around Thanksgiving and public schools moved to full distance learning under executive orders with coronavirus cases surging.

In some ways the situation is the same this year with the latest virus surge, in many other ways it is vastly different.

“We have learned a lot about the virus and how to deal with it in the past year, where before we were figuring it out as we went,” School Superintendent Pat Devine said just before schools went on break. And while early responses to the pandemic were driven by orders and mandates, schools now are able to work through guidance, recommendations, and data driven by local COVID-19 cases to develop actions and mitigation strategies, he notes. Plus, the wide availability of a vaccine has been an antidote to the virus and provides some assurance that schools can stay in session.

As a result, the Waconia school district has been able to hold in-person classes together through the first half of the year, although not without challenges.

“We’ve seen a lot of joy in being back together, and it’s clear that face- to-face is the preferred method of learning,” said Devine, noting that only 20 or so families have opted for online learning options.

“While COVID-19 is still an issue that we will be dealing with well into the future, life finally feels like it’s heading in the right direction,” said Waconia High School senior Kate Schutte. “After dealing with hybrid and online learning last year, students, including myself, are more grateful to go to school. My sophomore and junior year I felt like I was missing out on life and learning because of the pandemic, and having to distance myself from family and friends. I’m happy this year because I get to see more of the people who have made me who I am in life and glad I get to see all of my friends one last year before I leave for college.”

Students also point to the resumption of school activities and social interaction as making for a more normal school year.

“On the social side, a more normal school year has had a very positive impact, especially on underclassman who have never had an opportunity for that ‘normal’ high school experience until now,” said WHS senior Jack McCarty. “The pandemic has been hard on us all. Despite the unwavering support of teachers and staff, students have borne a heavy toll.”

So have teachers.

“This year is at least as difficult as last year, if not more, however the challenges are not at all the same,” said Jamie Hise, Waconia Middle School dean of students and 7th-grade science teacher. “Last year’s challenges were a little more predictable and had more defined answers. This year, the challenges ebb and flow and seem to pop up at unpredictable times.”

One challenge is getting students caught up academically after months of distance and hybrid learning. Many students also are behind in their social skills, teachers and administrators point out.

Teachers also have had to re-establish everyday routines and expectations. Students got kind of a pass on that last school year – a year that was difficult socially and emotionally, but not as rigorous academically.

Then there’s the revolving door of students coming in and out of COVID-19 quarantines – and the challenge of learning while they are at home. Meanwhile, widespread school staffing shortages mean teachers have had to fill multiple roles.

“Probably the biggest challenge is the lack of substitute teachers,” Hise said. “This is such a big deal because it spills over into so many other parts of the job and impacts everyone in the building. From the student side, if a teacher is out, each different group of students will potentially get slightly different lessons because it may be a different teacher teaching the class each hour.”

On the teacher side of things, Hise said, teachers who are subbing lose out on prep time for classes, and grading and communicating with students and classes.

Add to that the day-to-day uncertainties with the virus, the divisiveness and debates earlier this school year about masking, and the seemingly endless nature of the pandemic, and the sum total has been lots of frustration, stress and fatigue among all school district staff, Devine notes.

“We all keep wanting this to end,” he said. Meanwhile, “everyone is holding their breath” that schools can finish out the year in a somewhat normal fashion.

The expectation is students will be back in class Jan. 3, and teachers, students and staff all say that having students in the classroom is one big improvement over last year.

“It means students are receiving instruction in person and getting their questions answered in real time allowing each lesson to flow more organically,” Hise said.

It also means students are able to work together more closely, to help each other and learn in a more collaborative manner than last year. Being in person also provides an energy and learning environment that is hard to match at a distance, teachers say.

Meanwhile, educators have learned new strategies during the pandemic and new resources have been developed to improve learning, such as recorded lessons, interactive technology, and digital or at-home alternatives to in-class labs and activities.

“I have been so impressed with how many students utilize these tools independently and complete work from when they have been absent,” Hise said. “They have a fantastic understanding of how to use digital tools to help them be successful no matter where they are.”

And while there have been learning gaps resulting from the pandemic, they are “not as severe and not to the degree we thought,” Devine said.

Meanwhile, many students say the pandemic has changed their views on school and what they plan to do after graduation.

“As a general trend, especially with us seniors, there’s been a greater interest in biology and the medical field for post-secondary plans,” McCarty said. “There’s also been a fairly significant rise in political awareness and involvement, especially on social issues… COVID-19 in particular revealed a lot of gaps in the systems we use to address these seismic issues, and I found a calling to help bridge those divides wherever and however I can.”

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