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story.lead_photo.caption California R-I School Superintendent Dwight Sanders (California Democrat File photo)

When looking back on the 2020-21 school year, "resiliency" is a key word among administrators with the Moniteau County R-1 School District.

It was a trying year for educators across the country, as the COVID-19 pandemic forced widespread changes to in-person learning. For California's schools, those challenges have been coupled with ongoing work on the district's bond issue projects. While reflecting on the past year last week, superintendent Dwight Sanders, the district's trio of building principals and Director of Special Programs Julie Bird all echoed similar themes.

California High School principal Sean Kirksey said a lot of credit for how smoothly last school year went, challenges aside, should go to Sanders in his eyes. Kirksey said Sanders balanced a laundry list of tasks — budget changes, strategies to deal with the effects of COVID-19, the elements of construction projects both during the school year and the present.

"Everything that's a challenge ends up on his desk, and that's pretty amazing to go through all that," Kirksey said. "To me, as a high school principal, I feel like what he provided for me (in terms of) leadership didn't really change, despite everything else that was asked of him."

Meanwhile, Sanders said there wasn't a single person involved with California schools that didn't deserve credit for last year's efforts. Teachers and administrators went out and visited students when the district pivoted to virtual learning from Nov. 9, 2020 to Dec. 3, 2020, on top of providing virtual instruction. Food service provided meals, and every individual in the district was making adjustments "on the fly" to accommodate COVID protocols.

"We were all going through something we've never gone through, and it's uncharted water that we don't really know how best to navigate, but just doing the best that we could, and having folks that were in an uncomfortable situation justprovide the best service they can for kids," Sanders said. "It was pretty awesome, and it was a challenge."

Administrators agreed that getting students into seats was a top priority last school year, something the district was able to achieve for much of the year. Beside the three-week shutdown, the district was otherwise able to remain in person throughout both the fall and spring semesters. It was a product of lessons learned from the end of the previous 2019-2020 school year, when California schools quickly and abruptly had to go remote.

Kirksey said returning was important, in large part because being away from in-person learning left district employees unable to note when students needed extra support, whether they were flagging academically or simply relied on the school day as something of an "escape" from struggles outside of school.

"We are kind of the connective tissue that pulls those things together," Kirksey said. "Without that, the spring was really tough. I think that was the hardest part on me, just knowing kids were struggling and you can't be the only smile they get that day, or the only positive they get for the day sometimes. Our staff was very motivated to get back, so I was glad we came back the way we did, even with all the restrictions and the safeguards."

Getting back in person, California Middle School principal Matt Abernathy said, would have been impossible if not for the efforts of the Moniteau County R-1 School Board. Abernathy said last year saw higher student attendance rates than what might've been expected, a factor he said was because of the decisions the board made throughout the past year as it met frequently with district administrators and county public health officials.

People felt safe to come to school thanks to the procedures the school board set, Abernathy said. District-wide, the number of students electing to participate in remote learning dropped from the beginning to the end of the year as comfort levels increased. The remote population of CMS students dropped from 17 to seven students during the year, and CHS saw its group of around 40 students away from campus decrease by the end of the year as well.

"I do think we gave them the best education we possibly could, but it's so much better to be face-to-face with your teacher," Kirksey said. "I think the value of a good classroom teacher was never more on display than this last year."

The district had to consider a variety of "inner conflicts" on this front — educators who may have battled COVID and had to make a choice between coming to teach in person, parents who had to wrestle with their employment and caring for their children who were home during the period of distance learning, students and community members who lost friends and family to the virus.

California Elementary School principal Gary Baker highlighted the resiliency both the smaller education community and wider California community, in tackling the past 18 months. Baker said the community wanted in-person learning back, and being able to do so "stands out," as each building was able to make bends in what it did while still providing a consistent educational approach.

Baker said there are high standards set for both staff and students across the district, and being able to continue to do that despite the pandemic was a "joy" and made for a rewarding experience.

"It was definitely a 'champion moment,' I guess you could say, that we could provide the same quality of instruction that we always have given the challenges that came forward," Baker said.

Bird said, in her role working with several of the most at-risk groups of students district-wide, it was rewarding to see teachers pulling in students and their families for some face-to-face time during the shutdown to make sure their needs were being met socially and emotionally.

"Looking back, the teachers did a great job," Bird said. "(They) were more than willing to do anything that we asked them to, so I think that was probably the most rewarding part of it, seeing how the teachers handled it."

The experience creates, hopefully, a preparedness for the future, Abernathy said. That's something that will probably be on display entering the upcoming 2021-22 school year — Moniteau County public health officials have recently detailed the struggles they've faced with getting the eligible school-aged population vaccinated, so any COVID procedures recommended by the Moniteau County Health Center and the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) likely still remain in play.

Sanders said the district has walked a "tightrope" of providing an environment conducive to students' academic needs while balancing community desires, either for or against more stringent pandemic guidelines. Public health officials, DESE, the district's board of education — all these entities contribute, Sanders said.

Sanders said there have been initial, limited conversations with the school board regarding how the next school year might start out, but it's obviously a "fluid" situation given the time remaining between now and the start of the next year. Preliminary guidelines could include optional face masking and maintaining social distancing in classroom environments. One certainty, he said, is that the district won't have access to information regarding who has and hasn't been vaccinated and will have to bear that in mind.

Moving forward, there will have to be conversations with county public health officials, Sanders said, and an awareness of recommendations from DESE and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There will be protocols that have been implemented that won't go away as far as those regarding cleanliness and sanitation, but others will be hard to gauge until closer to the start of the year.

Regardless of the fluidity of the situation, Kirksey said the district will try to do what is best for its students.

"I feel like the board has started every meeting with 'What is best for kids?'" Kirksey said. "Every discussion about (COVID), it was what is the overall best for kids and trying to balance that. What's best for their education, what's best socio-emotionally, what's best physically and (for) their health. I think if numbers were to change, the conversation changes, obviously, and I think (community members) are responsive to that."

Another element that will be in play for the upcoming school year is the construction district-wide, namely the still-in-progress addition connecting CES and CMS, as it reaches a conclusion. Baker said while appreciative of the learning spaces CES has had thus far, getting an upgrade is a "new horizon" for educators. There's an aura of excitement among teachers about the amenities and resources that will be available soon, he said.

"Everybody's really excited," Baker said. "We also know that, just with anything, there will be some challenges of new (environments) and breaking things in and time tables, but with the past year, we can handle about anything."

Abernathy said most of the new construction adds elementary classrooms, though CMS will see a new cafeteria and library media center, also exciting changes for his building. He said from his end, he sees a lot of excitement among community members about the project in a different sense.

"Almost every community member that I've talked to about the construction and whether or not we're going to be ready or not, ultimately the final conversation ends with looking so forward to the new parking lot on the north side of the elementary, the new drop-off/pick-up location, the ability to be able to park in a parking lot that has enough space for me to walk right into a building," Abernathy said. "Almost everybody I speak to, that's what they're most excited about, because that has been the number one issue in this district for — oh, my gosh — all the years I've been here."

Sanders said some portions of ongoing construction will likely remain by the end of summer — working around asbestos at the elementary building will contribute to the timeline, he said, so those drop-off and pick-up areas won't be done by the school year's start. The plan, though, is for students and teachers to be in their new classroom spaces by the first day of classes. Sanders said one has to temper any stress with how "pleased" everyone will be once the work is finally complete.

"A lot of excitement, a lot of anxiety," Sanders said. "With change comes both of those things. I hear from staff members who are extremely excited and really looking forward to it. I hear from those that are cringing a little bit about some of the things that are going on as this change is happening. Anticipation is a big part of that. Just like any other construction project, it's going to come down to the wire. We're going to be working midnight of the last day, probably."

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