Pella Community submits first half of Return-to-Learn plan

PELLA — A return-to-learn plan for on and off-site learning has been submitted for the Pella Community District for the upcoming academic year.

All districts are required by the Iowa Department of Education to develop a continuous virtual learning program to prepare for another shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. District staff have been preparing for full on and off-site learning for the past month to meet the July 1 deadline.

The plan includes guidelines for teaching and learning; health and safety; equity (special education, English learners, gifted and talented, at-risk); social, emotional and behavioral health; and communication for both models.

“Things are ever-changing with our return-to-learn plan, just because there are pieces that we will continue to massage and work with until we get to the school year, which starts Aug. 20,” says Superintendent Greg Ebeling.

Ebeling says the district is anticipating face-to-face, on-site learning for the upcoming school year. However, the district knows it will need to prepare other options for students and staff, including full off-site learning and a hybrid of both models, for those who are most vulnerable or not comfortable being on-site.

“We think we’ll be more likely in a face-to-face and some kind of a hybrid mode with some students than we will with complete closure as we were this spring,” says Ebeling. “We’re trying to emphasize we’re really planning and trying to be face-to-face with exceptions that we will have to plan for.”

Teaching and learning

Lowell Ernst, director of K-12 instruction, says the district will implement off-site teaching and learning methods that are both similar and different from what students and staff experienced this spring.

Similarly, instruction and communication between teachers and students will be done through a learning hub; assignments and lessons will be a combination of live video, recorded segments and individual assignments; and teachers will continue to collaborate with one another regarding grades and courses.

On the other hand, instruction, attendance, assignments, and grading will now be required by the Iowa Department of Education beginning this fall.

“There is no voluntary option,” says Ernst. “If we were to go remote again, all work would be required. Students would have to complete that work to get a credit, and it would be graded. Those are all significantly different factors we experienced this spring.”

For off-site learning, teachers are expected to monitor student participation, provide live or recorded instruction, student feedback, office hours, grading, student participation, and collaborate with colleagues. Students are expected to participate in a certain amount of hours per week depending on their grade level. They are also expected to “attend” learning sessions or watch recordings later, engage in lessons and discussion, turn in assignments on time and communicate with teachers.

“We need family support in order to be able to do all of these things,” says Ernst.

On-site learning will be implemented by addressing social and emotional needs, determining learning loss from the spring, adjusting to meet the needs of gaps and adapting to health and safety procedures, says Ernst.

Health and safety

Madison Elementary School Principal John Steddom says the district has been working closely with Marion County Public Health Director Kim Dorn to implement health and safety measures for on-site learning. With that being said, Steddom says it will be nearly impossible to limit exposure of COVID-19 to all students and staff in an on-site learning environment.

“There is going to be some measure of risk there,” says Steddom. “Our process or our goal then at that point is to really zero in, identify and then mitigate for those high-risk students and staff.”

The district will take multiple precautions, including increased hand washing/sanitizing, increased cleaning and disinfecting, limiting shared materials and social distancing when feasible. Steddom says social distancing could be implemented fairly well in grades K-3, considering these students move from classroom to classroom in single-file lines. However, high school students will be harder to enforce social distancing in hallways.

According to Dorn, it would take 15 minutes of exposure for someone to be “dosed” with COVID-19. Steddom says students spend approximately five minutes or less in the hallway between classes.

“Even though it can be elbow-to-elbow and in close proximity, they [students] are not there very long,” says Steddom. “If our passing time in the hallway can be modified, I’d say we are OK for now.”

Lower grade levels will continue to have recess. Based on Marion County Public Health guidelines, Steddom says the dilution rate/exposure of the virus is “greatly diminished” when outside.

Additionally, the district will not screen students before and after school. Rather, the district is relying on parents to take temperatures before school and monitor for signs and symptoms of COVID-19. Students and staff are also encouraged but not required to wear PPE.

Steddom would also like the community to keep in mind health and safety guidelines will be different from district to district based on their respective COVID-19 data.

“We’re targeting our response based on our Marion County data,” says Steddom. “We’re in close connection with Marion County Public Health, and we’re going to try to ride that line as close as we can between getting back to normal but also doing it in a safe fashion. So the idea of looking at our own data and letting it drive what we’re going is important for us.”


Jefferson Intermediate Principal Brian Miller says both on and off-site learning will look differently for every Individualized Education Program and special education student based on their individual needs.

Starting July 1, there will be a section added to each student’s IEP for virtual learning. Each IEP team will determine how the IEP goals will be met in virtually.

Teams will also address accommodations for individual plans on a case-by-case basis. The team responsible for these plans will work with families to make sure each student’s access to instruction is maintained during off-site learning.

Social, emotional and behavioral health

The district’s SEBH plan will assess, monitor and meet the needs of staff, students and families by providing daily and/or weekly check-ins, monitoring students’ participation and engagement, conducting surveys and offering counseling, tools and other resources.

“Staff will monitor and work with students to ensure they have the resources and the help they need,” says Human Resources Director Linda Russell. “We’re going to meet those needs by doing some social-emotional training so they understand what’s going on. We want them to have the opportunity to talk and reach out to people to make sure they have resources at their fingertips or those people they can connect with.”


The communication framework will consist of “urgent,” “important” and “informative” modalities. The “urgent” modality will affect the current school day and/or interruptions in instruction. Communication is needed within an hour.

The “important” modality will be implemented if an event requires attention. Communication is needed within the school day. The “informative” modality includes basic information that needs to be provided internally and externally. Communication can be 24 hours or more.

“In the end, we know communication is going to be a critical component to make this plan successful,” says Ebeling. “All areas need to be communicated so people can understand where they’re at and the choices they have. There certainly will be choices throughout the plan that parents, students and staff will have to make.”

Further development

According to Ebeling, the fluidity of the pandemic could alter the district’s current on and off-site learning plan.

“This is very unlike what we typically do in education,” says Ebeling. “Usually we plan for and then implement. This feels like we plan and then have to be flexible to have it keep moving and changing. The more we can be that way, I think the more successful our plan can be.”

Staff will now develop a hybrid model based on the current on and off-site learning plans.

Emily Hawk can be reached at 641-672-2581 or by email at

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