COVID-19 Kicking School Operations and College Admissions


Abby Throndson

A sanitizing station and warning sign outside of the Washington High School swimming pool.

Abby Throndson, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Significant events in America’s history have changed the way Americans live and work. After 9/11 the world was never the same; the country’s security tightened and the culture of America changed with it. The list of events that changed the nation is growing with the addition of the Coronavirus pandemic, and American life just may change once again. Students have adapted schooling from home and slew of other lifestyle changes, from wiping down groceries before they go inside, to racing for the last pack of toilet paper.

Education all over the country has felt the effects of the pandemic. For students, a new way of learning through a computer screen was introduced. In Iowa, teachers provided voluntary learning in the Spring of 2020. Students learned through asynchronous learning, where teachers gave learning materials for students to complete on their own, or through synchronous learning, with live virtual meetings through Zoom and Google Meets.

Cedar Rapids Community School District Superintendent Noreen Bush said, “My heart really broke for kids, at that moment. Because many times school is the consistency, is the structural factor… that they need.”

Soon after schools shut down in March, the district started offering free breakfast and lunch to all Cedar Rapids students. Students could go to one of the seven meal sites for Grab and Go meals. This plan has been extended through the rest of the 2020-2021 school year.

Looking to the upcoming 2020-2021 school year, the district was hopeful to bring students back to school, in some capacity. For the students and their families, options for going back to school were presented: a hybrid model, a synchronous virtual option or the new CRCSD virtual academy.

Then a windstorm called a ‘derecho’ ripped through Iowa in early August. Wind speeds equivalent to a Category 2 hurricane tore through the state and caused widespread devastation across the city. Most of the CRCSD’s buildings sustained some damage, and certain buildings were unable to welcome students back physically. All three Cedar Rapids high schools had sustained so much damage that every high school student in the district went completely virtual. With a new block schedule and a virtual platform, the school year started a month late, and many students were completely online.

Bush was increasingly worried about the pandemic and the derecho’s effect on student’s emotional and mental health. “I think about kids who are experiencing, because of the derecho on top of the pandemic, homelessness… Families have lost their jobs because of the pandemic and all of that impacts school.”

One thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has encouraged is flexibility. Students who chose the Virtual Academy option were able to enroll in classes taught by Cedar Rapids teachers, but asynchronously. The Academy uses a platform called ‘Edgenuity,” to provide instruction and schoolwork that can be completed at the student’s own pace and time. According to Bush, the program is here to stay and it may be expanding soon, “Right now, our virtual academy is [grades] 6-12, I think that we’re going to need to explore a K-5 continuance of virtual learning.”
Another thing the pandemic did was speed up the CRCSD’s technology plan. “It was a 5-year plan and we ended up doing it in 18 months,” said Bush. High school students received Chromebooks early in the 2019-2020 school year. The plan was to hand out the devices to middle school students during the 2020-2021 school year, then take two years to roll out laptops to the elementary school students. Because of the pandemic, the entire district adopted a 1:1 laptop to student ratio to administer online learning.

Overall, the pandemic has really influenced how schools will be teaching and learning. Bush is hopeful that the pandemic will bring about some positive change for the future. “I think that there’s things that we’ll think differently about now… and realize that we don’t have to do everything how we used to do it.”-
The college search and campus visits have also been heavily impacted by the pandemic. Colleges and universities have had to adapt to ensure the safety of prospective students, while providing them information and opportunities to learn about the schools while being unable to be on campus.

“Right away when the pandemic started, we were able to develop rather quickly, a virtual visit program,” said Kristin Chapman, the Assistant Director for Campus Visits at Iowa State University. All three Iowa state schools (Iowa, Iowa State, UNI) are offering a variety of virtual options for “campus visits” and informational sessions. While all have since opened their campuses to prospective students, the virtual options are still available.

Usually, admissions counselors are traveling around the area, stopping at high schools around the state for college fairs and meeting with students. In order to make up for that loss of communication, Chris Traetow, the Associate Director of Admissions at the University of Iowa, says that the university is utilizing other forms of communication, like email, in order to bring students to the virtual options listed on their website. The school currently offers a 45-minute informational session, with topics including application information and a general overview of the school. As time went on, they have included sessions about the Honors college, the different academic departments and an in-depth look at financial aid. Prospective students can also request phone or Zoom calls with their specific admissions representative, or view the virtual campus tour, led by students.

Chapman says that Iowa State has gotten very good feedback from the virtual sessions they offer as well. She highlights that they are able to reach out to more students than before, including international students, and would like to continue the virtual program in some capacity.

“Our goal was to get information in front of them and hopefully spark some questions and topics that they can reach out with later,” said Traetow. The University of Iowa also plans on continuing virtual opportunities to learn about the school. “Nothing replaces a face to face visit, and the opportunity to walk our campus. However, the virtual opportunities will be here to stay…in some capacity.”

Colleges are also seeing a decline in applications and enrollment due to the pandemic. The New York Times reported that first year college students were nervous about committing to schools during the fast-paced changes seen with the Coronavirus pandemic. Many colleges had already been struggling with financial issues and reaching enrollment goals because of the rising tuition costs and the concern for student debt amongst young people.

Schools have lost hundreds of millions of dollars since mid-March, when operations were cut, students sent home, and classes conducted virtually. But this might be just the tip of the iceberg if the pandemic causes schools to shut down again. Traetow has even noticed a decline in applications for the University of Iowa, “Our applications, like many schools, are currently down. But we are confident that they will come back… to be consistent with years past.”
While schools, whether K-12 or higher education, have had to adapt to the ever-changing nature of the coronavirus, many are confident that they’re offering alternate opportunities that suit the needs of their current and prospective students.