Classes are already in session for Norfolk Public Schools.
"Staff and students seem to be a little more relaxed and a little more excited than the last couple of years when we were faced with COVID restrictions and just the unknownst angst of the pandemic."
Superintendent, Dr. Jami Jo Thompson says students and staff were eager to get back into the classroom this school year in Norfolk.
"(It's) a really good feeling getting back into the buildings and seeing kids this year." While there are a few post-COVID-19 changes still implemented, it's back to normal for Norfolk Public Schools.
"There are some things that we have continued such as the increased cleaning and sanitation, changing of our air filters, those types of things," Dr. Thompson said. "But overall, we're trying to keep our programming and our instruction pretty consistent because there's been a lot of changes in children's lives the last couple of years and we found that consistency is really important right now."
One big change that is sticking around is the importance of mental health, with licensed mental health professionals available to staff and students throughout the district.
"At the beginning of the pandemic, we saw that our counselors were overwhelmed and that's why we added those licensed mental health practitioners that can take on those more advanced or difficult cases," said Dr. Thompson.
Much like the rest of the nation, hiring has been a challenge. Norfolk had one open teaching position they weren't able to fill before the year started, a high school English position which the district merged into other classes for this semester.
"We have a little bit larger class sizes, which isn't ideal, but they're still manageable," said Dr. Thompson. The district hopes to hire for that position for next semester. Another change this year is we also just this year started paying our student teachers a stipend for their work in our classrooms to help with that recruitment."
With a new addition at the Lincoln Montessori Elementary building and other updates throughout the district, Dr. Thompson says this new school year is setting up to be a great one in Norfolk.
"I'm just excited that kids seem to be very happy to be here. Teachers seem to be happy to be here. You know, getting out and just visiting with the kids."
Classes began last week for Norfolk Public Schools.
SEE THE VIDEO
There are a few big upgrades happening at the South Sioux City Community School District this year, like brand new playground equipment at Covington Elementary.
There is also a new ventilation system at E.N. Swett thanks to COVID ESSER funding available to the district. "Right now, we are using it to increase the actual air quality in some of our aging buildings," Superintendent Todd Strom said about the district's use of the government funding.
There is also a new athletic complex that is set to open in the fall at the high school, something the district has been planning for years.
"Now we are finally seeing some nice, rich green grass going down and it looks like a soccer and football field. It's really exciting."
READ MORE: See our exclusive look at the Cardinal Athletic Complex development
One positive item on the agenda this school year is the return of all district leadership, something not typically seen in larger districts.
"All of our administrators are back which is a very rare thing for a district our size to have all of our principals and district-level leadership returning," said Strom, adding this element adds "stability and confidence in our leadership."
Like much of the country, the South Sioux City Community School District is also feeling the strain of finding enough educators and staff to fill all open positions. But they do have roughly 30 new educators joining classrooms this year.
"We are fortunate to have a certified classroom teacher in front of each student, but some of those positions we might have a long-term sub or someone that we would continue to look for a certificated teacher to replace them next year," Strom said. "We do have teachers on staff that have come to us from other trades that are great teachers that bring with them that trade experience, that industry experience and then are able to relate to the kids and talk to them about future professions in that industry," said Strom.
Mental Health is also a top priority for the district and has been in recent years.
"We have a great community partner in Heartland Counseling. We've partnered with them to place licensed mental health therapists in our schools," Strom said. "Their caseloads are fairly substantial, close to 100 cases per therapist. They are in our schools and able to be accessed by students, faculty, and parents in a confidential setting."
The district also has a growing internship program for high school students who are placed in part-time internships while continuing to take classes.
Kindergarten through 5th grade, 6th and 9th grade all started class Thursday. All students will return for the new school year Friday.
The district still has several positions that need to be filled for this school year that are not in the classroom, you can find those open positions here.
SEE THE VIDEO
SOUTH SIOUX CITY, Neb. — The home of the South Sioux City Cardinals is getting a major upgrade just in time for football season.
"We're really excited the community is excited. Our student-athletes are excited about the completion of this field." High school sports and activities play a big role in South Sioux City.
"Like many communities, our athletic field is somewhat the hub of the community," said district Superintendent, Todd Strom. "So on Friday night and weekends when no football season's occurring, when soccer games are happening, when there are marching band contests, it's going to be a gem of a place for our students to showcase their talents but also for anyone."
The South Sioux City Community School District has been budgeting for this update for years, thanks to diligent work from the school board in ensuring Phase 1 can be fully funded with district money. "The field, the track, and the bleachers will be funded through our general budget from the school district."
Phase 1 includes several big items, like moving from a grass to a turf field, "we are building a new field turf field, a new track, some bleachers and a press box for our home crowd and then a new ticket office in this first phase of construction."
The 2nd Phase, which will include new concession stands, a plaza area, restrooms and more will rely on donor funding to complete.
"The rest of the phases are going to be dependent upon donor funding," Strom said, "which we've already secured and had some very generous partners come forward."
Demolition on the old complex started in late spring and is on track to be completed later this fall, but it won't be ready for the start of the football season. So the district is getting some help from friends across the river with home football games being played at Dakota Valley to start the season.
"We hope to be able to end our season by playing some games here maybe the end of October," Strom said. "But if not, we definitely have some very supportive educational partners in the Suitland area that were appreciative."
Not only will the complex house football games, but track and field, soccer, marching band, and many other community and club events, too.
"Foot traffic's not going to wear this out," Strom said of the new turf field. "We want to put as many kids and community members on this field using it as we can that schedule allows. Football is just one sport, obviously track and field on the track, but we want to be able to host soccer, which is a huge activity in our community and we want to be able to host not only school soccer events, but hopefully some of the community and club soccer events here in the future."
The Cardinal Athletic Complex is still looking for donors for Phase 2. If you'd like to learn more or donate: ssccardinals.org/news/latest-news/cardinal-activities-complex
SEE THE VIDEO
The Sioux City School Board had a busy agenda with two major topics up for discussion.
The first was changing the mask policy in the district, giving the superintendent the ability to require masks in separate buildings on an "as needed" temporary basis when the positivity rate in that building reaches a certain threshold. This mandate would be enacted if the building reaches a 3% positivity rate among students and staff.
That would require all people who are in the building to wear a mask for 5 school days and it would be extended past 5 days if the building remains at or above 3%. The district says the goal is to keep schools open.
"So I think that really is the driving discussion behind all of this and board members saying keeping our buildings open is the most important thing," said board president Dan Greenwell. "Nobody is going to be happy about everything, but I think this is a reasonable balance for all folks."
Now with unanimous board approval, Superintendent Dr. Paul Gausman can enact a 5-school day mask mandate per building when that 3% threshold is reached. Last week, three buildings were above the 3% threshold on Friday.
"We have to recognize that this district is 67 square miles and what is happening on one side of town often isn't happening quite the same way on the other side of town. That's even true on a day when it's snowing," said Dr. Gausman. If we don't control it by that 3% mark, it appears to balloon a little out of control and I don't want that to happen for any of our students and certainly not our staff members."
Dr. Gausman receives reports daily from each building and will determine if that mask mandate will be enacted the night before. Similar to other school closings, students, parents and staff will be contacted via social media, phone calls, texts and email. If you are not receiving these messages, you are asked to reach out to the district.
Should a mask mandate be issued for a building, everyone who enters that building will be required to wear a mask, unless they already have an approved medical or religious exemption. This includes at sporting events, concerts and other activities held within the buildings during those 5 school days.
The district is also administering rapid COVID-19 tests at each building. These are completely voluntary and available for staff and students. The district administered 277 tests the week of January 10th through 14th, with 84 positive results.
Also at the school board meeting, the board discussed pay increases for several levels of employees within the district. Para-professionals, instructional assistants and many others will be seeing a bump in their paycheck. Board president Dan Greenwell says this decision was needed and it is just the beginning of this discussion for the board.
"We got out of sync with the market in our hourly pay. The board recognized that. These folks were underpaid, by any market standard they were underpaid," Greenwell said after the meeting. "We are going to continue to look at some other hourly positions. Of course, we believe some hourly positions are at market rate and we don't see changes across the board. We are looking at group by group and individuals by individuals."
Over 400 staff within the district will be seeing that pay hike which takes effect on February 1st.
The 2021-2022 school year for the Sioux City Community School District has largely gone off without a hitch, except for one issue, there are not enough substitute teachers, something districts nationwide are facing.
Along with struggling to find teachers, the district also needs stand-ins for other staff, like food service, administrative and transportation. One issue they are working to resolve is finding a better way to communicate openings to their available substitutes.
"As we're finding out more about this process our internal processes at the district," said school board president Dan Greenwell. "Not all subs available subs are being contacted on a regular basis."
The district is already working to rectify this issue, "we are working right now to hire a new person within the team that will control and operate manage the subsystems for the district in a new way than we've ever done before," said Superintendent Dr. Paul Gausman.
Back in November, the school board was presented with an option to hire an outside company to bring in substitutes for the district, hiring within the tri-state to fill the need. Ultimately, the board decided to make a few changes in-house before taking that step.
"What we're finding out in the process now is there's a lot of things that we could do on our own before we say to say hey, let's pay some out of state firm to assist us," Greenwell said about the board's decision to not hire the out-of-state company.
The biggest issue at hand, addressing substitute teacher pay.
Currently, Sioux City pays its substitutes on a three-tier pay scale which was increased on January 2nd.
A substitute who works between one and 20 days, will receive $140 per day, an increase of $25. A tier two substitute, who works between 21 to 50 days, will receive $180 per day, a $45 increase. A tier three substitute, working more than 51 days, will receive $210 a day, a $30 increase.
They've also m retired educators who want to step back into the classroom.
"Our old policy was to start retired teachers at the lowest level of pay. And the question is, did that make sense? And the answer was clearly no, it didn't make sense," Greenwell told Siouxland News. "They have 20 and 30 years of experience, why would we start them with the lowest level of pay? They're the most experienced most familiar with our district, moving to the highest level pays."
Now the district is looking at the other positions that need to be filled. "But we're bringing forward recommendations to the board for all other positions as well," Dr. Gausman said, such as food service and instructional assistants and others and so we know that that the market has changed rapidly through the pandemic."
With the rise in inflation, the district acknowledges that this raise in pay may not be enough.
"Inflation is real right now, and costs have gone up.," Gausman said. "And, you know, certainly the board made a significant change in the amount that we're paying in wages, but we know some of that's being eaten up by that inflation and so we want to stay ahead of this challenge as we move forward."
One other issue the district is running into is not one they can really tackle themselves. A backlog at the state level for those who want to step up and become a substitute has left many waiting several months for the appropriate documents needed to teach.
Greenwell has reached out to Iowa's start representatives to see how bad that backlog is. "The state has a significant delay in their process, which means applicants who want to sub can't because they don't have their sub license. So these are the type of things that we're finding out right now in advance."
Board members who aren't already educators have applied to be substitutes and administrative staff is stepping up and back into the classroom as well, including Dr. Gausman, who has stepped in to direct band and a few other classes. "You know, having been school superintendent now for nearly 20 years. It was a little different to plan my day to go in and be an instructor," he said.
In November, when Siouxland News first discussed this issue with the district, Sioux City had about 270 people on their substitute list. While that number has grown, they need approximately 500 to fill the need district-wide. The district is doing what it can to fill open positions. but they still need more qualified substitutes and not just for the classroom. If you're interested in becoming a sub, contacting the district is the first step.
District Administration and the school board continue to look at ways to make positive improvements for teachers, faculty, substitutes and of course, the students.
"I think with the increased pay with improving our internal processes and over time, I think you're going to see an improvement in our sub situation," Greenwell said.
Gausman agreed, "I prepared for my work, you know, in future days going into classrooms, it's just something I need to do like others need to do we all have to roll up our sleeves and helped, you know, work our way through this challenge together.
SEE THE VIDEO
School districts across the nation are facing a shortage of substitute teachers and the Sioux City Community School District is looking to hire an outside company to help fill that need.
The district, speaking Friday on the need for both substitute teachers and para-professionals, says they are at a critical point.
"This has risen to the level of what I would call a crisis," said Superintendent, Dr. Paul Gausman. The district was only filling about half of their open classrooms at the height of COVID-19, and while the numbers have risen, "we're back in the 70 to 80% range and our fill rate, but that's just not good enough," Gausman said.
After exhausting many efforts to bring substitutes into the district directly, they are now looking at hiring an outside company, ESS based in Tennessee, to help.
"ESS is a very experienced company. They've been in place for 20 plus years," said Human Resources Director, D.r. Jen Gomez. "They are partnering with districts across the country and have shown to improve the fill rates in those school districts."
If approved by the school board during Monday night's meeting, ESS would begin promoting in Siouxland, looking for local people to help fill the gaps in the classrooms, dedicating a group of people to just finding those substitutes and getting them certified and trained.
"They are going to be able to dedicate the time and the attention that's needed to address the substitute coverage," Dr. Gomez said.
A big question for taxpayers is what will the district, if approved by the School Board, pay ESS to provide this service?
"I know there were some concerns about the cost of this company and essentially they are paid on the fill rate," Dr. Gomez said. "As far as filling the positions, that's how they're paid. And so they're essentially we're not spending more than what we normally would be spending on substitutes."
The district currently has about 270 substitute teachers but says they really need at least 500 to fill the need. Currently, when the district can't find a substitute to fill an absent teacher's place, other teachers and staff will step in and help cover, but that is not only overworking Sioux City staff but the students are impacted, too.
"We need help our teachers," Gomez said. "They're working extra. There are teachers that are working during their plan time to cover classes and they're working together."
The school board has also been meeting with ESS representatives ahead of their vote on Monday night, getting any questions they need answered before they vote. One concern was ending the relationship with ESS should the company not meet expectations. School Board President, Perla Alarcon-Flory says they will be able to stop service with ESS at any time if they feel the need to, without penalty. Another big factor was hiring local.
"What we were concerned about is the local people and we're going to be hiring local people," Alarcon-Flory said. "They are not one that is coming from other places just to fill in this position."
You don't need an education degree to be a substitute. They welcome people from all backgrounds with the proper certification.
"There are people out there that might be accountants or engineers or you know other professions," Alarcon-FLory said. "Maybe they have the skills, abilities and knowledge to get a substitute license and come and teach."
The bottom line is, Sioux City's school district, like many across the nation, is in desperate need of substitutes, not only for the kids but for the educators who are working tirelessly for the students.
"They're working as a team and they're supporting one another," Dr. Gomez said, praising the district's educators and staff, "but they're getting tired and we need to really help them out."
"You have to realize that for most teachers, being a teacher is not a profession or is not what they do," said Alarcon-Flory, "it is part of their identity, it is who they are."
The school board will vote Monday night on whether to hire ESS to provide substitute teachers. ESS educators will have benefits, like insurance and competitive pay.
The Sioux City School Board meets Monday night at the district's office building on 4th Street next to the Sioux City Public Museum at 6 p.m.
If you are interested in becoming a substitute teacher, you can visit the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners website here.
SEE THE VIDEO
The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds, or ESSER funds, have helped school districts nationwide recover from the pandemic. Sioux City Schools is no different.
Let's take a look at the District's ESSER funding so far:
WHEN: Spring 2020
AMOUNT: $2.6 million
USE: Personal Protective Equipment and Cleaning Supplies
WHEN: December 2020
AMOUNT: $17.3 million
USE: More PPE, cleaning supplies. Plus, additional technology to make sure every student and educator had access to technology for virtual and in-person learning.
WHEN: March 2021
AMOUNT: $38.9 million
USE: To Be Determined
The district school board, the community and school officials have discussed many options to use the nearly $39 million in ESSER III funding.
During Monday's school board meeting, the board will be presented with a plan on how to best spend the allocated funds. Siouxland News got a preview of that proposal from district superintendent Dr. Paul Gausman and Assistant Superintendent Dr. Kim Buryanek.
"First of all, we're here to serve students," said Dr. Gausman, "that's our number one principle and so, we've got to take a look at the students and figure out ways in which we can serve them to help them grow."
At least 20% of the $39 million must be used to address pandemic learning loss. With this proposal, the district is allocating more than $15 million, or 40% of its budget.
ADDRESSING LEARNING LOSS
"We've got to take a look at where our students' learning loss has occurred where are the biggest challenges, what subgroup of students is the largest subgroup that is witnessed we've witnessed the greatest learning loss," Dr. Gausman said.
This school year is the 3rd under the COVID-19 bubble and the impact the virus has had on kids' education is already being seen.
"We see an impact of COVID in our early grades," Dr. Buryanek said of the pandemic's already-felt impact in the district. "There are some foundational skills that students two years ago when they were in second grade or two years ago in first grade, they just missed out on some learning, and now we're seeing the impact of that in our student achievement scores."
Part of the 40% will be distributed to other organizations that help student achievement. According to government data, 70% of the district's student body lives in poverty.
"If we can equalize the challenges of poverty, we will equalize those scores across racial and ethnic groups, and across those who are learning the English language." Dr. Gausman said, "and so, I really believe that's a civil rights issue for our time to look at serving those students in poverty."
Monday night's board meeting will also give the public a first look at student testing data and while preliminary, can help guide the school board and district in the right direction to best help students and teachers.
"And when we look at that data, yes we can see some different performance levels among subgroups might be racial groups or ethnic groups, but where we really see the largest challenge is students in poverty," Dr. Gausman said.
One way the district hopes to help student achievement is through summer home visits. These voluntary visits will bring a student's teacher to their front door, creating a stronger relationship between the student, their teacher and the family as a whole.
Dr. Buryanek said this voluntary visit could do great things for students and staff. "Research studies have been done on home visit programs and those studies show that there is an increase in attendance, there's an increase in parent and student engagement when a successful home visit programs are enacted in schools."
The district also has a plan to help their teachers with their own professional learning time.
"We've allocated an additional hour a week, that if teachers want to, they can come in, outside of their contract day and work with other teachers of their grade level or their content area and really take a look at students and their proficiency, who is struggling as a student, what can they do differently to help impact their student achievement," Dr. Buryanek said.
THE OTHER 24 MILLION
But now the challenge is how to best use the remaining $24 million.
"Anytime we have a real opportunity like this one, we need to model," Dr. Gausman said about him, the district and the school board. "We as adults working to solve these challenges and use this opportunity. We need to model for our students and our community, how adults deal with challenges..
"This is a challenge because it's one-time money. We can't spend this money over and over again well beyond the 2024 timeline and so we have to be careful about that." One of the largest allocations is slated to be used to hire more educators. The district wants to hire around 45 new teachers to help reduce class sizes district-wide. They’ve set aside $7.5 million for those new hires over the next three years.
"Our board has been very clear with us about this, however, that anything you put in here has got to be sustainable, one way or another and yes, we've got a number of staffing positions in there, and yes this money will go away eventually," Gasman said, "but we do have a process design where we can do our best to sustain as many of those members of our personnel, as we move forward."
Another position is a Family Support Coordinator.
"We know that families in our community have been challenged have challenges with COVID," Dr. Buryanek said, "and so we want to make sure that they have somebody that they can reach out to in our school district that will help connect them with support and resources."
The budget also allocated $3.25 million for permanent substitute teachers within the district.
Another large line item is upgrades and additions to the district H-VAC systems with $7.5 million also allocated to that project. One part of that project is adding air conditioning to the gyms at East, North and West High, the only areas within the school buildings not cooled. They also hope to bring better air quality to all buildings district-wide.
"We want to install a district-wide UV system to treat the air as it comes into our building, to help cut down and prevent any viruses," said Dr. Buryanek, "and not only are we talking about COVID viruses, but it also has an impact on any students that have asthma or other upper respiratory illnesses or challenges.
"It really will make a long term improvement well into the future that, that we can sustain." Along with improvements to air quality, comes sustaining the heightened cleaning that the district has had to do since the start of the pandemic. They've allocated nearly $650,000 to hire more than a dozen new custodial staff to help keep the district buildings clean. The district has stepped up cleaning protocols in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Another district improvement in the proposal is a $1.5 million project to house the new VIBE Academy, the district's new permanent virtual learning school.
"It's paramount," Buryaken said, "it's very important for them to be together in the same space so they can collaborate. They can have conversations about students that are struggling and get them connected back to the school or to resources that will ensure their success."
One other budget item allocates $80,000 to purchase rapid COVID-19 tests, creating rapid testing sites at each district building for students and staff. These tests would only be given to students with written parent permission. This line item has also been widely praised by many in the district and community.
"So with the board's approval or acknowledgment of this budget," Bruyanek said, "hopefully Monday night, we plan to move forward with acquiring rapid COVID tests on Tuesday."
Monday's proposal to the school board is just that. A proposal. With each item and project being approved as needed throughout the next three years.
"This is a budget that plans on how we're going to spend money all the way into 2024," Dr. Gausman said. "The currently seated board won't be here, necessarily, then and that board that's here in 2024 might have different ideas then. So I don't think that it's just Monday that we might make some alterations, I think you'll see us bringing this back in front of the board on a regular basis between now and the end of the resources."
Overall, Gausman and Buryanek say this plan and the hours dedicated to developing it, has first and foremost student success in mind.
"We want to make sure that we use this money wisely and we have the greatest impact on students and student achievement that we possibly can."
The Sioux City School Board meeting begins at 6 p.m. at the district's downtown building and is open to the public.
SEE THE VIDEO
Web articles from my time at Siouxland News.