My dad used to reminisce about attending a one-room schoolhouse back when he was in elementary school. An unmarried woman taught multiple grades throughout the course of the day. During the winter, she would come in early to stoke the wood-burning stove, which provided heat.
Now, let’s fast-forward 80 years. My youngest son is preparing for his senior year of high school in the same township. A thousand students are being taught with smartboards and iPads—no textbooks at all. Add to that a worldwide pandemic which rocked the educational system, and things look dramatically different in so many ways.
To get a better perspective on how things have changed over the last year and a half, I sat down with Dr. Jeff Hill, superintendent of the Morton 709 School District. Dr. Hill has been in education for over 35 years and recently announced his retirement at the end of the next school year. As with all the districts in Tazewell County, parent engagement was exceptionally high through the Covid pandemic. Morton conducted several community surveys to gauge their preferences for in-person, virtual or a hybrid model of teaching. Overwhelmingly, parents responded that in-person was the preferred method.
As with all schools in Illinois, Morton’s students were required to wear masks throughout the school day, and lunch schedules had to be rearranged to accommodate social distancing. Other than these and a few other modifications, school was “essentially back to normal.” The district did a wonderful job of managing the ebb and flow of illness and quarantine—and never had to shut down the schools. Even the teachers who had to quarantine were able to teach their classes from home via electronic means.
Other factors for the success of Tazewell County schools during the pandemic include local control and cooperation. Local control allowed individual school districts to move quickly and make decisions based on a variety of factors unique to their area. That is one key to successful governing at any level. Cooperation was also paramount to a successful school year, with parents, the health department, teachers, staff and students all working together.
Lessons from the Pandemic
Important lessons were learned over the past year, which are essential to moving forward. One simple lesson is that handwashing is a good thing (and always has been) for keeping germs and viruses in check. Another is that digital technologies can play a vital role in educational continuity. The district was able to provide “hot spots” for students who did not have access to reliable high-speed internet.
One final lesson is that the social, emotional and mental health of students is better when they have the opportunity to interact with their peers. The pandemic was a very anxious time for almost everyone, and being able to attend school provided much-needed normalcy for the students. In addition, Dr. Hill talked about other critical issues, including vocational education, smaller pools of teacher applicants, and how the “northern Illinois”-based legislative push can have terribly negative impacts on how students are taught.
Education is constantly changing; yet the core mission that my dad found in his one-room schoolhouse and my son finds as a high school senior remain the same. As paraphrased from the Morton District 709 beliefs statement, good character, citizenship and the highest-quality academics are key to training the next generation. PM
David Zimmerman is chair of the Tazewell County Board.