Central Lee’s pod classes are unique in Return to Learn

Central Lee administrators and volunteers deliver meals Wednesday to students in learning pods around Montrose. The district is teaching in 13 pods in Donnellson and Montrose during the current COVID-19 outbreak. Photo by Chuck Vandenberg/PCC


DONNELLSON – With the state of Iowa now reporting more than 1 in 10 people tested for coronavirus are positive, a clever move to create safer learning in classrooms is holding up well at Central Lee.

When the Iowa Department of Education required a Return to Learn plan from all public and private schools in the state in July, Superintendent Dr. Andy Crozier and the administrators in the district came up with a unique strategy for the K-8 students.

The district reached out to community stakeholders to find remote pod locations to hold elementary classes. That move put students in more than a dozen locations around Montrose and Donnellson, creating valuable social distancing space for students.

As of Sunday morning, Lee County’s positivity percentage was 18.1%. According to DOE protocols, districts with rates higher than 15% combined with an absentee rate of at least 10% for staff and students not enrolled in online-learning, can request of waiver from the state to go to strictly online learning.

Central Lee Elementary Principal Heather Fuger gives an elbow tap to students in Montrose Wednesday afternoon after delivering meals to the pod

No school in the district has announced they are seeking that waiver as of Friday.

Central Lee Elementary principal Heather Fuger said the move has been received extremely well by parents and the community.

She said when the district rolled out the pod-oriented elementary plan and went to mandated masks in classrooms, families felt safer putting their children back in classrooms.

“Our survey data over the summer had showed us that parents were ready to come back to school,” Fuger said. “But what we’re hearing from people is that went we rolled out this program and went to mandated masks they were more comfortable coming back.”

She said now the district is under 10%, or about 100 students, taking the on-line-only option for learning during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Students started class on Monday and finished their first full week on Friday without any early dismissals. Fuger said each day was smoother than the previous one.

Mrs. Campbell holds a 3rd grade class at the Montrose Ivor Fowler Center on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020. The district is teaching more than a dozen elementary classes in pods around Montrose and Donnellson, Iowa, as part of its Return to Learn 2020 plan. Video by Chuck Vandenberg/Pen City Current

“Every day has gotten better. Every day is smoother. We did all the planning we could do and until we actually did it, we really didn’t know how well it was going to work,” she said.

With classes in community centers, churches, and business spaces, the only ask was for the district to cover utilities. But in many of the locations the property owners are not asking for any compensation.

One church even installed some window air conditioners for student comfort.

“The community absolutely came out to support our kids, asking ‘what can we do, how we can help’,” Fuger said.

The Montrose Riverfront has the largest class with 26 4th grade students, but the venue provides a unique historical setting and a dynamic view of the Mississippi River.

Fuger said 4th grade teacher Steve Finney has used the opportunity to include a segment on Montrose history in his lesson plan.

“He’s’ decided because he’s connected to such a historical area with a museum nearby, he’s going to do a whole unit on Montrose history, because he said why not take advantage of this and the river,” Fuger said.

Logistically, the transition has been very smooth including transportation and meal changes.

Families were given a choice to either bring their children to the pods or go to the school and be shuttled around to the pods.

Meals are then delivered by district staff to the pods, with one van going through Montrose and a separate staff delivering to Donnellson.

Students are at 10-foot banquet tables and spaced out to maintain the social distance requirements. They also wear masks all day in the classroom, unless they have an exemption for health reasons.

“We’re of course thinking this is temporary until data and conditions tell us otherwise,” she said.

Curriculum Director Angie Fransk said the goal of the district’s professional development during the break was on keeping students at the same pace whether learning from home or in classrooms.

“With pods, it was a priority for us to make this as seamless as possible and easy on parents so kids are in the same place, and there is equitable access to good quality education,” Fransk said.

Fransk said she is unaware of any other district in Iowa using a similar remote site learning process.

“We were very intentional on that. Professional development prior to school for our teachers was all based on supporting that remote learning and online presence. We knew there could be a chance where we would go online at some point.”

Fuger said the district is also now more streamlined at the grade level than they’ve ever been.

“We’ve always been working towards it, but this actually kinda pushed us to that last little bit. Now, if a family chooses to come back to classroom learning because that’s what they need, we don’t want them to be behind or out of the loop,” Fuger said.

Fuger said she is planning to put out a message of thanks to the entire elementary district.

“It’s a message of complete admiration and thanks for our kids. Our kids have been amazing. They’re so patient, calm and excited, just to be back learning,” she said.

“And our teachers – their hearts are finally back to doing what they love to do. They’re rolling with the little changes and have a little less planning time because of the travel, but I’ve had zero teachers complaining.”

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