Special Report: Back to School: Making the Call

Special Report

SIOUX CITY, Iowa (KCAU) – With the beginning of the school year right around the corner, Siouxland schools are working around the clock to reopen safely.

Many parents are also on edge. We last caught up with Shelley Hexom and her two elementary-age kids in March when schools shut down. Now, Hexom has decided her kids will return to school for in-person learning.

“It’s probably the most difficult decision I’ve ever made as a parent,” Hexom said.

Hexom’s friend Amanda Gibson says both her two sons will learn virtually–an equally difficult decision.

“Our oldest son has asthma, and so we just don’t know the data–we don’t know how it could affect him, so we just felt it was safest to keep him home,” Gibson said.

Both Hexom’s and Gibson’s children are part of the Sioux City Community School District. In July, the district had to partially change course after Gov. Kim Reynolds announced the majority of Iowa school districts must offer at least half of all learning in-person.

“We initially presented a proposal that would have us either on-site, or in a hybrid situation, or entirely virtual. We needed to make a little bit of an adjustment to our hybrid plan to make certain we were doing everything necessary to deliver if we used the hybrid model: at least 50 percent of our core instruction in person,” Sioux City School District Superintendent Dr. Paul Gausman said.

Dr. Gausman added that preparing has been a delicate balance of providing the best possible education in the classroom, while following changing state and CDC guidelines.

“I want to be really clear with our community that if you don’t want your student to wear a mask, then we have an option for you, and that’s the virtual learning option,” Dr. Gausman said.

Todd Strom, superintendent of South Sioux City Community Schools, agrees. His district is creating an almost identical plan.

“We have an in-person plan for all of our students and faculty members, we have a hybrid plan, and we have a virtual/online learning plan,” Strom said.

The district has opted for a hybrid plan. In mid-July, the state of Nebraska released a color-coded chart to help school administrators make changes in health protocols. That same week, the district revealed they would follow guidelines in the ‘moderate’ category, while trying to keep as many kids and teachers in the classroom as possible.

“Research shows that we can better educate students in a live-classroom setting. All research shows that maximum engagement that the human mind can have in an online learning environment is two hours a day,” Strom said.

Strom says while the goal has always been for parents to be able to choose what they feel is safest for their child, the effect of virtual learning could linger far beyond the pandemic.

“Many researchers are predicting that those that choose to not be in school, or not be engaged, it could be generational impacts,” Strom said.

For now, Gibson says she remains optimistic about her kids’ online learning plan. Regardless of the decision the Sioux City Community School District makes, she hopes that every effort will be made to keep students and teachers safe, and keep politics out of the equation.

“I’m from a family of teachers. My mother taught for 33 years. And I don’t, I would never want someone to put her in that position as a teacher, and so I wouldn’t put one of my son’s teachers in that position,” Gibson said.

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