COVID-19 shutdown creates whirlwind week for school districts


This week, the Wilton and Durant school districts find themselves in the middle of their scheduled spring breaks. Yet amid the current novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, it marks week two of a 4-week closure of both school districts.

The closing down of schools until April 13 came on the recommendation of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds. She made the plea in a press conference Sunday night, March 15. By the following morning, both schools were closed.

Wilton and Durant shared Superintendent Joe Burnett called for closure hours after the governor’s announcement a whirlwind. He said on that Sunday night he got word that the governor was holding a special press conference.

“She holds the conference then I was on the phone for the next two hours. We had to coordinate everything,” said Burnett. “We then made a mass phone call to each district. Because she recommended it and didn’t mandate it, it was a little strange. We go from not shutting down to a 4-week shutdown … I’ve always followed recommendations from the powers that be. I made the decision that night.”

The following morning, the state athletic unions followed suit, forbidding all practice and competition of athletics during the same timeframe. There was also a child services piece within both school systems. Before and after school programs for children — Crackerbox in Durant and Latchkey in Wilton — were also shut down.

A meeting among administrative staff from both districts was held in Durant Monday morning, March 16, the first day of the shut down. “I met with the principals of each district for more than two hours to map out a game plan for four weeks. We wanted a coherent strategy to stay on the right path forward,” said Burnett.

At that point, it was unknown whether or not state government would waive the three weeks of instruction missed. Burnett said the districts put together a “plan A and plan B” involving both students and teachers. By that Monday night, Gov. Reynolds announced the legislature was working on a deal to waive the days for schools.

On Tuesday, March 17, Burnett and the administrators met with teachers and members of the school boards. Plans were implemented with teachers, who are still on 174-day contracts. Burnett said that it was also important to continue paying non-certified staff, bus drivers, and others employed by the districts.

“Teachers were tasked with getting kids to the end of the school year with three less weeks plus talking with parents,” said Burnett, who noted that the next meeting with staff will be March 30 and 31, upon coming off spring break.

With regard to school meals, the schools are unable to still provide school lunch due to the fact that they don’t meet the free and reduced lunch numbers needed. Burnett said a district must have more than 50 percent of students receiving free or reduced lunches. The Wilton and Durant districts hover around 30 percent, yet Burnett said the schools were planning to apply for a federal waiver to hopefully allow them to serve some lunches in the future.

“God bless our local businesses that have offered free or reduced meals,” said Burnett. “We’ve continued with our back pack programs too which provide food to kids. If someone is in a desperate situation, please call the schools.”

When asked if he thought schools would in fact get back in session in mid April, Burnett said he wasn’t sure. “I’m 50/50 on whether we’ll come back again. What is this pandemic going to do?” he said, noting that as of now, important upcoming dates like prom and senior graduation at each school were still scheduled.

Wilton Elementary Principal Denise Austin and Jr./Sr. High Principal Marc Snavely said Wilton schools were in the middle of a deep clean last week. Snavely also said that the staff lounge in the high school was getting a facelift. Austin noted that lockers in the elementary wing were being cleaned out as well, as many had food and other debris inside.

Snavely said that if that everything stays on schedule, students will come back and have one week to finish the third quarter before heading into the fourth quarter of the school year. While events like prom and graduation were still on as scheduled, Snavely noted a determining factor may be crowd sizes recommended by the state by those times.

The Wilton district also canceled an upcoming school trip to Ecuador in the summer, a spring chorus trip to Florida and the eighth grade trip to Washington, D.C. in April.

“In 20 years of education I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Snavely.

Burnett, Austin and Snavely each said they’d been involved in several conference calls and meetings over the Internet.

“It’s an ever changing environment. The most important is our kids to stay safe, stay away, read and exercise,” added Austin. “It’s all good learning that they’re missing. The important thing is taking care of each other. We don’t want our parents worrying about anything else right now.”