Special Report: The Pandemic School Year | #teacher | #children | #kids

TIPPECANOE COUNTY, Ind. (WLFI) — The bell has rung on the pandemic school year — one unlike any other.

“It was unprecedented,” says Kathy Heckaman, a school counselor at Wyandotte Elementary School.

But before celebrating graduations and summer breaks, News 18 is taking a look at how local schools got to this point.

“I didn’t think we’d make it far as we have,” says Lafayette School Corp. Supt. Les Huddle.

A year ago, the possibility of an in-person school year seemed unlikely. But schools in Tippecanoe and surrounding counties did what many thought was impossible.

“We knew we had a tall order come August,” says Tippecanoe School Corp. Supt. Scott Hanback.

When students returned for in-person learning, they were met with many COVID-19 restrictions. 

“I knew that I wanted to come back to school and be able to see everyone, no matter if we had to wear masks and social distance,” says Brianna Ritchey, a senior at Jeff High School.

Along the way, school staff encountered many triumphs and tribulations.

“It’s been a real constant juggling act,” says Debbie Beck, a physics teacher at Jeff.

“We always had to be prepared for shutting down quickly,” says Lori Cords, director of nutrition at TSC.

By the end of the year, many school officials were left a revelation about the next generation.

“One thing we learned is our resilient our students are,” Hanback says.

“They’re stronger than I anticipated, says Katelynn Franscoviak, a second-grade teacher at Wyandotte Elementary School.

Her first full-year of teaching was a learning experience for everyone.

“Learning new ways to show kindness,” she says. “I think one of the saddest parts was kids wanted to go over and help each other with the Chrombooks.”

One of her students, Pepper Beck, says one new rule was tough to follow.

“We can’t give hugs or piggy-back rides,” she says.

Most students agreed on this year’s biggest challenge.

“I don’t really like masks,” says second-grade student Kendall Johnson.

“It’s just really hard with a mask,” says fourth-grade student Grace Cary. “It’s my least-favorite thing about COVID.”

“It gets your skin condition really bad,” says Jeff junior Charlie Long.

Down the hall at Wyandotte, counselor Heckaman has seen a shift among students.

“It is no secret that we see a lot more anxiety than we used to across the board but I had those kids that were more anxious,” she says.

One of those students was fifth-grader Carlo Del Real.

“I was afraid I might get COVID … but after all this time, I’m fine,” he says. “Nothing’s going to happen. COVID’s almost over. We’re going to be fine.”

That’s an optimistic outlook but it’s not far from the truth if the vaccine rollout continues, says Jeff physics teacher Beck.

“It’s giving us the feeling that we’ll have a new world and a new way,” she says. “We will get there if we continue to follow the science.”

Adding to the optimism: the return of time-honored traditions and events like athletics.

“It was obvious kids wanted to be here in addition to not only learning in person, they wanted to have their athletics and their music and their art,” Preston says.

Ritchey is feeling thankful as the year comes to a close.

“Coming into August, we didn’t know if we were going to have a graduation or a prom,” she says.

As News 18 previously reported, rampant staffing shortages forced schools into periods of e-learning.

“Literally and physically, waking up every day and wondering if you’re going to have enough staff members who are healthy,” Huddle says.

Those issues could stick around, he says, and so will many COVID-19 restrictions — at least, for now.

“They’re going to be easier to ease those rules be it masks, be it visitors in our buildings, social distancing, than it will be to start without a lot of those things and then try to regenerate it,” he says.

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