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Local

Strength in numbers: Hiawatha uses small size to advantage in re-entry plan

Caitlin Benes, Hiawatha Elementary School principal, shows off one of the face shields Thursday that will be available for teachers to use if they would like when classes resume at the school in Kirkland. The staff has preparing the building for students to safely return this year after schools were shut down last spring due to the pandemic.
Caitlin Benes, Hiawatha Elementary School principal, shows off one of the face shields Thursday that will be available for teachers to use if they would like when classes resume at the school in Kirkland. The staff has preparing the building for students to safely return this year after schools were shut down last spring due to the pandemic.

When devising a Return to Learn plan, Hiawatha administrators decided to use the district's small size to its advantage.

Projected at about 440 students for the fall, superintendent Jared Poynter and the administration came up with a plan that features full-day, five-day-a-week in-person classes for all grade levels, plus a remote option for those that wish to opt out.

"The No. 1 reason why we went with that plan was due to our size," Poynter said. "We believe due to our size we can provide a safe environment with social distancing. We still have a remote option, so that's also going to limit the number of students that actually come in person allowing us to even better allow a safe environment with social distancing."

With the first day of the year slated for August 24, elementary principal Caitlin Benes said about a quarter of the students are opting in to remote learning. At the middle and high school levels, classes will be live-streamed for the remote learners to get their information the same way as in-person learners.

At the elementary level, two teachers will be dedicated to the remote learners, running from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m., as opposed to 8-3 for the rest of the district.

"At the elementary level, we were able to take two teachers out of the building and dedicate them to remote learning," Benes aid. "At the junior high and high school level it does work nicely for them to remote in and get that same instruction as in-person, but for elementary we did not feel it was appropriate to ask young children to do that."

Since all three levels share a building, the elementary school will use the lunchroom, with one grade level using it at a time for half an hour, spread out between 10:45 a.m. and 1:15 p.m.

The school is purchasing a tent to put up outside for the older levels to eat in, and provide a safe, socially distanced lunch on days with inclement weather, according to the school's 20-page Return to Learn plan.

Middle school administrator Ben Powers said the lunch plan shows the value of having a smaller district sharing a building and what it can do for communication.

"That's a great thing about being a small school. You work together K-12," Powers said. "You start to see the problems that the others run into."

The older levels are also going to block scheduling, with 90-minute classes offered on alternating days.

"If we weren't able to have a safe environment for students to come back, we wouldn't have explored this option at all," Poynter said. "We would have looked potentially to some neighboring districts that are larger. But because of our size we feel like we can meet those safety needs."

Poynter said feedback from parents has been positive, something he credits to the open and transparent process he said the district is using.

That's led to the staff encouraging families to choose whichever option, in-person or remote, is best for their specific needs.

"I think the biggest thing is there's really no wrong answer for families," Powers said. "That's what we're really trying to get across. Certain things are going to work for certain families. Families themselves have to weigh those options to the best of their abilities. The biggest thing for us is to provide them with as much safety and security here at the school."

The district has had some Chromebooks in classrooms, but for the first time this fall will be fully 1:1, with students able to bring them home, as well as dedicated devices for students at all levels. Poynter said the program was slated to start this year with a slower rollout, but the district accelerated the timetable due to the pandemic.

Benes said the students have a familiarity with the Chromebooks so that doesn't present any added complications to start the year. She said they are also bringing the parents up to speed.

"Some of our parents are in that limbo where they're trying to get a comfort level," Benes said. "Last spring we did offer kind of a program where we would, if you did not have technology at home you could come and take on of the Chromebooks from the school to use when we were all forced to go remote in the spring."

Benes said the district went slower than others in devising its plan, but said she thinks the end result shows.

"I know for a little bit we were hearing it was taking our district longer to come up with a plan," Benes said. "But we were steadfast on not wanting to rush. We felt some districts might be doing that, and we did not want to fall into that. We wanted to come up with a feasible plan that would work for our community."

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