Dr. Paul Gausman looks back on an unprecedented school year with COVID-19
On Sunday, March 15th just after 8 p.m., Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds announced she was recommending all Iowa schools close for four weeks to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
Iowa schools would remain closed to in-person learning for the remainder of the year. Over the summer, schools created Return to Learn plans to help keep students and staff safe for the new school year. These plans included scenarios for in-person learning, hybrid education, and online classes, keeping student and staff safety in mind.
The Sioux City Community School District was one of the only large school districts in Iowa to return with in-person classes during the 2020-2021 school year.
Siouxland News Anchor Diana Castillo sat down with Sioux City Community Schools Superintendent, Dr. Paul Gausman to revisit the district’s Return to Learn plan, the decision to wear masks in school, and what he would do differently if he could.
Here is part of that interview:
Diana Castillo: Dr. Gausman, thanks for meeting with us today to talk about what has been quite an unprecedented year. March of 2020, March 15th to be exact, is when Governor Reynolds announced that schools would be closed for at least four weeks, it wasn’t until six days later that Sioux City, or Woodbury County, reported their first positive case. At that time, did you think that schools would reopen?
Dr. Paul Gausman: I didn’t necessarily think that they would reopen for that year. We knew that we would eventually close. We were surprised at how early we ended up receiving the announcement from the governor that we were going to close. I think we learned about that on a Sunday and it was to apply to the very next day. Of course, we were hopeful back in those days that we could find ways to mitigate the challenges of the virus and get kids back in school. But we immediately began working on ways in which we could deliver instruction, food, services to kids and families in the challenges of the pandemic because no one knew back then what it was going to be like. We just knew that it was severe.
Diana Castillo: In the first few weeks of the pandemic, what was your main concern?
Dr. Paul Gausman: It’s interesting to think about the fact that our core mission is academic achievement. We are here to bring the students forward academically. When the pandemic first occurred, we really learned that one of our areas of core mission wasn’t just academic achievement, but food service. We immediately began a process where we would get food, delivered in a safe way, to families, most specifically to kids. Any students that are zero to 18 years of age, in what I believe would be 27 different locations about our town.
The second area of focus for us was pushing connectivity out into neighborhoods because academic achievement is our core mission and so we wanted to do all that we could to reach students as well as we could. We didn’t have enough devices back in that day for all students to have their own devices, and even if we had, not all students had connectivity in their homes. So, when we first started pushing vehicles into neighborhoods that were wireless hotspots and allowed people to connect to the internet. Then we did more to provide more devices to students. That was the academic side.
On the other side, which was food service, we just kept this program rolling where it was literally free food available to families.
Diana Castillo: What do you think was the biggest obstacle in getting all students prepared for virtual learning?
Dr. Paul Gausman: For a number of years, we said that we weren’t sure that this virtual thing will really work for us in the long run. Especially in a community such as ours. We are a very diverse community. We are very large. We are kind of a medium-sized school district by national standards, but for Iowa, we are fairly large.
We didn’t have the number of devices and the supports and the resources, but because of our staff members, our team come together and found a way to serve kids. Even amidst these challenges that any of us had ever experienced before.
RETURN TO LEARN AND MASK REQUIREMENTS:
Diana Castillo: In the initial draft of the Return to Learn plan, masks were not required, they were expected. So what I want to know is, why wasn’t the decision made right off the top to require masks?
Dr. Paul Gausman: There were so many decision-makers that were involved in the pieces of that puzzle, but no one was stepping forward and saying ‘this is the final decision’. I know it was my opinion that the only way we were going to be able to open the buildings and consistently serve students, is if we consistently have the same rules and regulations for everybody. The only way that seemed clear to me was with masks on.
Diana Castillo: So you supported masks being required from the beginning?
Dr. Paul Gausman: I did.
VIRUS CASES IN THE DISTRICT:
Diana Castillo: Overall, from August to now, how do you feel the number of cases has impacted the district?
Dr. Paul Gausman: We’ve been very transparent with the community by releasing the data each week, at the end of each week on Fridays. Something we decided we were going to do right at the beginning because we know that a lot of people were going to want to know.
We had incredible cleaning protocol and of course, mandated the masks which didn’t go over well with everybody when we first did it. We’ve become more accustomed to it now. And everywhere possible, and it wasn’t possible everywhere. And everywhere we could we put in more social distancing. And we had a week or two where we certainly had higher percentages than we would have liked, but we consistently stayed lower in terms of students or staff who were in the district, in their building, and showed signs of the virus on any given week. Our numbers stayed really quire low and I think that’s a credit to them.
Diana Castillo: Anything you would have done differently this school year?
Dr. Paul Gausman: Oh interesting question. You know, when the pandemic started, the news of what was changing was almost every couple of hours. And as we kind of got into March of last year and April, then it became every couple of days things seemed to be changing and then every couple of weeks. During that early time, things were changing so rapidly that we did everything that we could to communicate as thoroughly as possible and to get that information out.
Now that I see where we are today, I suspect that we could always go back and find ways to improve our digital connectivity to one another. Although I do have to say, this district is one that seems to celebrate that in-person experience. And I am thankful for that because I think that kids learn best when they are in a classroom with their teacher. When we were finally able to open our doors and welcome people back, you could sense that relief, and while we maybe could have stretched it further with digital offerings. I am thankful for the school board, the support of the school board, and the work that they did to help us get back into session.