What a year it has been

Blake Gardner

What a year! No, it’s not the end of a calendar year, school year, or fiscal year; but a COVID-19 year. March 13, 2020 is a day that will be seared into my brain forever. Our school district began to game plan for a potential COVID-19 disruption to our school district in early March 2020. We formed a committee of teachers and completed a series of “what if’s” and worst-case scenarios. The uncertainty of the next few days gave me anxiety that ultimately led me to clarity.

I typed a memo called, “Gardner’s Guiding Beliefs”. Some of those beliefs included: (a) I believe school is the best place for our kids, (b) we are a family, (c) the school is the nucleus of the community and (d) we would only worry about controlling what we could control. I shared my guiding beliefs with everyone on the morning of Friday the 13th — including a commission at city hall. Unfortunately, by the time I returned to my office at the school I learned that school would be called off for the next week to “deep clean.” That cancelation was the first of many cancelations that ultimately ended in-person learning for the 2019-2020 school year.

I was proud that our school and community showed solidarity during the pandemic. We gained state-wide notoriety for hanging banners of our seniors and hosting a cap and gown photo opportunity. We served meals to our students using a “grab and go” method. Our preparation for a possible closure helped us distance learn better than many other districts. We had stakeholder surveys, committee meetings over Zoom, and plan after plan after plan. Ultimately, it was a school year that I didn’t think I would experience in my first year as superintendent. Yet I believe we made the best out of a bad scenario. I believe every decision we made was in the best interest of our kids. I believe we came together as a school and as a community, and it unified us because we were all on the same team.

The summer of 2020 included more planning, more surveys and more zoom meetings. Overwhelmingly 95 percent of our respondents stated that they wanted in-person schooling for 2020-2021. Our team began brain storming the best ways to make this happen while still providing a safe environment. I attended frequent meetings with the Department of Health, Monument Health, Sanford Health, and checked the daily trends/active cases on the department of health website. We challenged everyone to wash their hands frequently, wear a mask if they couldn’t social distance and stay home if they were even minimally ill. As a result, we have been in school, in person, full time, all year! I am not taking a victory lap just yet as we still have two and a half months of school left, but I can’t even describe how proud I am of everyone. At the time of this letter, we don’t have any active cases and have only had 34 students/staff get COVID from the onset. Anyone can view our dashboard on the school website.

In closing, thank you for your support this year. From the bottom of my heart, I am humbled by our community support. I want to give a special thank you to our teachers and students who truly deserve credit for our school year. The data and test scores might not show it this year, but over the course of time I believe the Hill City students (and South Dakota in general) will be way better than others. It has certainly been a wild year, but I am blessed to serve as superintendent of a district with awesome kids, amazing staff, and supportive parents. Throughout it all we have remained on the same team with the same goal: the best education for our kids!

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