Going back to school

Gray Hughes

School in Hill City starts on Aug. 19, and Blake Gardner, superintendent for the Hill City School District, is ready.

He said his team did a great job navigating the COVID-19 waters, and he is looking forward to seeing kids back in school.

“I miss our staff, I miss our kids, I miss our parents,” he said. “So I cannot wait to see these people and get back to the new normal.”

When Gov. Kristi Noem ordered schools to be closed for a week last March — which eventually turned into closing school facilities for the remainder of the academic year — Gardner said he was proud of how his schools handled the situation.

No one assumed the closure would be for the rest of the year, he said, but he created a think tank before the governor’s closure on March 13 to discuss how to deal with a short-term closure.

Because the district did that, Gardner said, his schools were ahead of the curve and were prepared.

“Several months later, I still believe school is the best place for our kids, and there are endorsements from, like, the American Association of Pediatrics that talk about the negative impacts on social, emotional, mental health from kids not being around each other,” Gardner said. “As a district, what we want to do is have the safest environment to bring our kids back in, which means we are going to be disinfecting, we are going to be doing the hygiene, we are going to be distancing as best we can in a school setting, and we want a great environment for our kids. We want to have a great year.”

The way the schools will educate students will look different this year, which, Gardner said, is not necessarily a “bad thing.”

The district and its teachers will be flexible and nimble from transitioning between in-person and distance learning, Gardner said.

In a normal year, Gardner said on the first day of school teachers discuss matters such as hand raising, where the bathroom is and where to eat lunch. This year, the first day routines are going to be teaching kids how to log onto their email, becoming familiar with the learner management systems the district uses and how to be successful doing distance learning.

“So we are really preparing our kids for that digital learning component even if they’re here in person,” Gardner said.

From the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and school closures, Gardner said he has been very proud of the school and the community. He said he is aware of organizations and schools that were ripped apart because of COVID.

That’s why Gardner was pleased that 75 percent of families thought the school assigned the perfect amount of work and 91 percent of stakeholders thought the district communicated exceptionally well.

The district and the community surrounding the community, he said, really showed solidarity and banded together.

“Was it perfect? No. But we made the best out of a really bad situation because we did it as a team,” he said.

The district has been able to use the summer to plan for the upcoming year — to prepare for any situation the district may face.

This year, there are five new staff members coming to the district. Gardner said he gets excited to see all the teachers come back onto campus because there is a joy.

Gardner has goals for his district this year, too. Number one is navigating COVID-19. Number two is getting back to the district’s strategic plan.

The district is also up for reaccreditation this year, which, Gardner said, makes people step up their game.

The last thing Gardner wants to focus on is student achievement. There is a great opportunity for student achievement because of the way the last school year ended, Gardner said.

The district will benchmark its students in the fall to see where they’re at compared to last year, and then the district will give out the Northwest Education Association assessments three times.

Gardner said he is really excited to see the growth the students show this year.

Overall, though, Gardner said he is excited about the joy of education this year and really focusing on the fact learning is fun and being around friends and coworkers is fun.

“I hope our staff and our students jump out of bed every day ready to come to school because I know I do,” Gardner said.

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