Hometown Heroes

A Community Coming Together

By Amanda Blazzard

With the words, “Send the kids’ iPads and chargers home with them today. Just in case.” spoken calmly by my principle, I knew something was wrong — very wrong — we don’t just send iPads home with our Kindergarten students. Little did I know how current events were about to rock everyone’s world.

A WORLD CHANGED FOREVER

The week of March 9, 2020 was one for the records. We began with the time change messing with our sleep cycles, by mid-week the population was wolfishly hoarding toilet paper under a full moon, and of course the week ended with Friday the thirteenth, which oddly — or maybe not so oddly — would also mark the last day of school. I’m not generally one for superstition, but things were feeling mighty bizarre. What had been a faraway tale from other countries, now jumped to the forefront of our lives. COVID-19, Corona, some wild virus, whatever you choose to call it, had arrived in full force and began its lesson in exponential multiplication.

Word quickly spread. There would be no school for the children Monday. Administration, building coaches, and the district IT department spent hours over the weekend piecing together a plan. A plan for an ever evolving situation that changed by the minute. Sitting in an emergency staff training on Monday morning, we looked around the room wondering; Who is safe? Are we sitting too closely? How on earth are we going to carry on elementary classes on iPads? A vast number of our students don’t even have internet access at home! How are we going to make sure they are fed? Will there be someone home to care for our students? There were so many unknowns. Plans began to unfold in an orderly fashion. With technology that allowed us to stream live, we prepared for a full day of learning. Then we received the news that there was a confirmed case of COVID-19 in Wasatch County. We were ordered to wrap everything up in less than an hour and told to exit the building and just like that, our world had changed forever.

While my heart aches, I take a step back and look at the big picture. We’re still “Wasatch Strong!” We’re going to do this. We are doing this. We are leading out in the nation. Five years ago the school district launched a digital initiative, a quest if you will, in technology. Although the road was bumpy and sometimes contentious, we collectively arrived at a good place where more than 90% of Wasatch High School students were utilizing Canvas. Canvas is an online platform for learners and teachers to manage educational courses. Middle schools and elementary schools were not far behind. Not only did the district already have in place numerous licenses to digital resources, we had digital coaches assigned to every school in the district. Thanks to the vision and support of our courageous school board, the entire district, were one-to-one with technology this school year, meaning every student has their very own computer learning device. When Governor Herbert announced an allotted two days for schools to regroup and prepare to launch a new style of teaching throughout the state by Wednesday March 18th, Wasatch High School and many other teachers in the district were already ahead of the game and pumping out lessons Monday morning.

Our digital coaches function like blood in the body of our organization. These folks rushed together to capture the technological information and tools, as well as directives from our administration. From there they dove deeply into every nook and cranny of our district giving life to our instruction and functions. Vital is the best way to describe each and every one of our coaches. We never could be what we are without them.

BUILDING THE PLANE AS WE FLY

Time and again we’ve referred to our new model for education as “building the plane as we fly!” What an exhilarating approach! We can all attest to the courage that has taken. Pieces we deemed most important in that flight are: accounting for our students, making sure they are fed, both physically and emotionally, and assuring they are set to move forward in their learning of meaningful curriculum. In order to account for each student; teachers, aides, office staff, administrators, and every spare body, began compiling lists and calling students and families one by one. “Are you okay? Do you have food? Is there someone home to help you? And boy we sure love and miss you!”

Lunch counts were scabbed together the very first day of our school’s soft closure and passed on to our food service employees who whipped up lunches to distribute around the district. Bus drivers no longer hauled students, but became a school lunch version of Meals on Wheels taking lunches to Todd Hollow and Wallsburg. Aides, office staff, even principals jumped into cars to deliver sack lunches to kids they knew needed to be reached. PTA mom’s volunteered to pitch in with lunch staff to hand out meals as cars drove by in a lunchtime procession. At the time of writing this article there have been as many as 1500 lunches served consistently per day — many of them are hot lunches.

Everyone has made herculean efforts to reach our kids. District School Nurse, Aubreigh Parks shared, “We’ve all taken on new roles and job shifts so that we can function as a ‘family for kids who need a family’ and as members in this powerful team that make up Wasatch County School District.” We are not designed to be an online school; personal connection is what we do. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recognize what are commonly referred to as ACEs, Adverse Childhood Experiences. Part of our job as a school district is to help prevent COVID-19 from becoming an “ACE” in the lives of our community’s children.

A MESSAGE OF HOPE

Delivering a resounding message of hope to all students became top priority. This support started at the top and trickled down to every individual in our organization. Principal Piper Riddle spoke of how Superintendent Sweat and his district level team kept a calm front and have done a stellar job of keeping principals informed ahead of public announcements, so that decision making had a small buffer. He asked us to please care for ourselves and reminded us that we are parents first and teachers and staff second. Simple yet powerful statements from Superintendent Sweat like; “If all else, be compassionate” and “Find the good” help buoy us up.

Colleen Cummings, one of seven high school counselors, shared that they, as counselors and social workers already had a process in place to help students — that hadn’t changed — they just needed to look at it through a different lens. Counselors, district wide, are continuing to reach out to students, parents, and teachers. They are hearing from groups of students who are facing trials they have never experienced. Principals spoke of how their building’s counselors began really reaching out to teachers and other staff in their mental health checks. Everyone is under an extreme amount of pressure, but we have resources and we have each other.

As the severe shift in job descriptions evolved Cummings found herself transform into a delivery person for the high school’s food pantry. With gloves and boxes of food in tow she became sidekick to Char Dawson, who runs the school food pantry. This dynamic duo began heartfelt deliveries to families who had been referred to their program. Dawson spoke highly of our community when she shared that, “… due to the generosity of the beautiful souls of our Heber Valley there had been money set aside just waiting for a rainy day.”

That day came and “families were just so grateful and shocked” at what the food pantry was able to deliver. With help from Superintendent Sweat’s administrative assistant, Stacy Moore, they were able to work with Lee’s Market to procure food with restrictive purchase limits needed for these families. As they delivered, they would hear family stories. Many had lost jobs or were self-employed. “Everyone has their own story. We’re all affected. There were nice conversations, but all are feeling some kind of pain.” Char is passionate about her job with the food pantry and shared, “We are feeding the children of Heber Valley — our children.”

Another Batman and Robin partnership are high school teacher Kim Foy and Hispanic Family Coordinator, Angelica Sanchez Zelaya. Together they tracked down high school students who had no access to internet, and needed food, or learning devices. They delivered 30 packets to students so they could continue learning in one day. Of course their safety and that of their students was of utmost importance. The drop offs were completed before a text or call went out from a good social distance to make students aware that there had been a delivery on their porch.

Zoom, a virtual classroom if you will, became another preferred method of delivery. Together they muddled through connecting students one by one. Angelica breaks language barriers for both Spanish speaking students and parents. Kim, who specializes in teaching reading, unlocks knowledge for students.

Zelaya shares, “It has been tough for everyone. However, in our experience when we went to visit all these people, I grew as a person. I realized how blessed we are to be in a community that helps each other with resources. With people willing to learn, willing to teach, willing to participate, and willing to be volunteers. These wonderful teachers are doing everything they can to make it happen, and administrators are right there in the middle of the war trying to help us. It has been beautiful… everyone wants to push this wagon. In the past few weeks I have connected with more parents than ever. And that’s my job; to connect with my community to get involved in their children’s education.”

When talking about our outstanding parents we need to expand that appreciation to every parent of every child in our system. Principal Dave McNaughton of Timpanogos Middle School put it well when he said we need to “throw a big bone to all the parents.” Each principal spoke highly of parents and their constructive feedback. They have generally been very kind, understanding, appreciative and helpful in facilitating their children’s learning. As teachers and administration we realize that teaching isn’t easy and we are so proud of the parents who have stepped up to the plate and bore an additional burden during this time. We realize that many parents are either out of work or trying to work from home. No one is in an ideal situation, but everyone is shining through the adversity.

Principal Justin Kelly of Rocky Mountain Middle School stressed that everything really has been a group effort. Sharing the story of a founding father, Henry Knox, and his arduous trip to retrieve 56 cannons from Fort Ticonderoga during the Revolutionary War, Kelly told his staff, “We’re going to get cannons; because we have to defend education… we need to get curriculum to our students… it’s going to be messy, it’s going to be hard. We have children who need education and we are going to do it.” Kelly stated, “We hit the ground running. That was the cool thing to see.”

This idea rang true district wide as everyone rolled up their sleeves and got to work. Principal DeAnna Lloyd shared that, “we just couldn’t do it without the spirit of collaboration among teachers.” Wasatch County School District has been highly trained in what is called the Professional Learning Community Process or PLC Process. We know we make the most substantial gains for our students when we work together as a team. We saw our training fall into place within our buildings, within our district, and throughout our community. Professional Educators looked to each others’ skill sets and shared brilliance to pivot education as we have known it for over 200 years to an entirely new approach overnight. It has not been easy. It’s been messy and exhausting. However, we continue to pull through as a team.

TEAMWORK

Teamwork is dream work, this is what we know and live by. Techie team members found ways to deliver our messages. A number of teachers jumped right on board teaching live lessons to a range of ages in their respective digital classrooms. Music, Library, P.E. and Art specialists and counselors joined class meetings and began creating their own lessons and set of resources for students linked to their web pages and online classes, or broadcast through our social media links.

We really have to hand it to our Special Education department as well as our Related Service providers. Related services include our physical and occupational therapists, our speech and language therapists, vision therapists, motor aids, school psychologists, health aides, and nursing staff. These individuals have been putting in long hours to be sure students with disabilities have equitable access to curriculum. Creativity and parental support have been crucial in serving every last student in the best way we can dream up.

High School announcements have continued each day led by students, Principal Stephanie Discher has continued working to recognize student birthdays, Principal Ryan Brown still gifts his crowd smiles daily on his Joke of the Day Flipgrid where students also post their jokes. Many have helped with cleaning, food delivery, creating read aloud videos for students, even videoing craft projects and tutorials. One aide made an Easter cookie tutorial for students. J.R. Smith Principal, Ryan Brown, spoke of entering the school one evening to see custodian Leo Wood hard at work, in his face shield and gloves, sanitizing the building for the safety of the staff. Our custodians are wonderful examples of character and serious work ethic. Custodian Todd Kelly of Midway Elementary was given a spontaneous ovation in their staff room to show appreciation for his hard work. We really could brag on every employee of our district family!

MOVING FORWARD

We can see amazing dividends. Our educational tool kit has been tremendously enlarged. Parents and teachers have become united in the interest of our valley’s children. We have seen teachers who were previously unable to converse with students due to cancer treatments, cesarean sections, or other health restrictions who have been able to interact with their classes in a way we’ve never before experienced.

This unprecedented situation has changed the way we approach teaching and learning. Principal Tod Johnson of the high school voiced his excitement in the possibilities of us falling away from the idea that education is about checking boxes. Maybe now we can learn to engage in learning for the joy of learning. Technology is helping us learn anything we want to learn. We have all become tech savvy through necessity. And just like a fine piece of steel that is honed in a flame, we are all taking heat and becoming stronger for it.

At the end of the day the heroes we must not forget are the children. Principal Stephanie Discher said it well, “the most important reason for what we do is the kids. They are so brave. We need them as much as they need us.” The crowning moments as a teacher have been watching our students’ faces pop onto our screens. Faces of your children we have been missing and love dearly. Tears stream down our cheeks when we get to connect face to face… even if it is from a distance on an electronic device. Those little pieces of our hearts are still out there. They have lined the streets as we have paraded in decorated cars around our school boundaries as far away as Todd Hollow to well within the heart of Heber Valley. They have paraded past us in vehicles as we stand 6 feet apart holding signs in front of our schools. We have sent messages of love and encouragement to each other with posters, emails, and voice messages. We are making history. We’re proud that our educational front in Wasatch County School District is powered by so much good. Where love is, you find beauty. Through this all, there sure is a lot of beauty.