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As Chequamegon Bay school districts make plans to extend distance learning through summer school, seniors are lamenting the loss of their final days of camaraderie with longtime classmates and the spring sports season.
Gov. Tony Evers extended his stay-home mandate to fight the spread of COVID-19 until May 26 and ended the academic year for state schools, leaving seniors without the grand finale of awards, proms, graduation ceremonies and the chance to bid good-bye to friends as they embark on a new phase of life.
The conclusion to his senior year feels surreal to Washburn's Charles Motiff, who is keenly missing friends and athletics as the year winds down.
"It's definitely weird not seeing friends every day," he said.
Plus, the 17-year-old track-and-field athlete's goals to return to WIAA State competition as a sprinter and jumper have been dashed as the season never even left the starting blocks.
His classmate, 18-year-old Nora Doman, runs track as well, but just to have fun while staying in shape with friends. While she wasn't
upset about losing the season, Doman misses her friends and teachers, who are doing their best to keep education on track remotely, she said. And the absence of milestones marking the end of high school, such as the senior prom, is leaving a void in her life.
"It's hard to realize it's all coming to an end faster than I would have hoped," Doman said.
Pomp and circumstance
While seniors try to adjust their end-of-school expectations, faculty and administrators at Ashland, Washburn and Bayfield schools are striving to ensure the students still enjoy a quality graduation experience, accolades for their athletic careers and recognition of their talents and contributions.
Ashland has committed itself to holding a commencement ceremony for seniors, Superintendent Erik Olson said, although it will have to be held after June 30.
"We really want to give the graduates and their families the walk across that stage," he said.
Nevertheless, the high school principal and a team of educators are working on contingency plans if a ceremony isn't possible. They will ask students for input if it's necessary to take another route, Olson said.
Washburn and Bayfield schools don't have concrete yet to honor their graduates, but Washburn Superintendent Tom Wiatr and Bayfield Superintendent Jeff Gordon said principals, counselors and staff were planning alternatives to the ceremonial delivery of diplomas.
Gordon also said it's possible Bayfield will hold ceremonies later in the year.
"The consensus is we want to do something for the kids," Gordon said.
Before schools can think about sending off their graduates in some semblance of style, teachers must give students the best possible home education via remote learning.
Washburn had multiple education plans in place whether the students returned tomorrow or never came back to the building at all for the completion of the school year. It was actually nice to finally get an answer to the question when Evers gave the order.
"That brought us closure," Waitr said.
Administrators are working with teachers to help them complete the year's curriculum, and Wiatr is confident they'll succeed. Washburn will grade students as usual, but Bayfield moved to a pass/fail system to end the year. Ashland will not fail students, but instead give them an "in-progress" notation.
While Washburn had been prepared for remote learning — all of its students from kindergarten on up already have devices — Bayfield had to play catch-up and is in the process of helping staff, parents and students conquer online education formats.
Teams of teachers working behind the scenes in Ashland are identifying how best to serve students and families, and develop a system to reach kids remotely. Olson praised faculty for contacting students just to let them know teachers were keeping them in mind and cared.
For students who don't have Internet, Ashland, Washburn and Bayfield continue to distribute paper homework.
Most parents in the Bayfield school district have Internet access, Gordon said, and the school is reaching out to parents who are interested to discuss setting up hotspots.
While Wiatr said learning at home with paper assignments is not the same as virtual learning, he lauded families and students for being resilient and making accommodations. But the district will continue to examine how remote learning is progressing and shore up critical elements for the remainder of the year.
Plans for the end of the school year must remain fluid as districts gather information from the state Department of Public Instruction and Evers, and the districts are setting course for summer school as best they can.
Summertime classes would have to be delivered remotely through June 30 as Evers' orders now stand. Unless the school closure order is extended, Ashland could start in-building instruction beginning in July, Olson said.
Washburn is planning virtual academic classes, a "jump-start" class for kids to get ahead going into the fall, and some just-for-fun activities, Wiatr said.
Bayfield will hold virtual instruction but also may try to get summer school classes in-house starting mid-August, Gordon said. The district might ask the state for a waiver to start school earlier to assess students academically, help them transition back to the classroom environment and identify any educational deficits.
The schools hope to extend their meal programs over the summer, but that depends on receiving the OK from the state Department of Public Instruction.
Bayfield will continue to provide breakfast and dinners seven days a week through the end of the school year and rely on Red Cliff to provide the lunches while the school board discusses applying for the DPI waiver, Gordon said.
Ashland and Washburn likewise will be perusing DPI guidelines on summer meal programs.
No matter how well the end of the school year plays out, it will still generate bittersweet memories for the graduating class of 2020.
Not being a huge fan of ceremonies, Motiff isn't disappointed to miss the pomp and circumstance of graduation, but he knows many of his friends eagerly anticipated their moment on the stage. And while he also didn't plan to throw a graduation party, he had looked forward to making the rounds at other grads' celebrations.
"I was excited to go to my friends' for last hoorays," he said.
When Northland College ended all of its face-to-face classes in mid-March in favor of on-line courses because of the COVID-19 pandemic, students packed their bags and left for home.
Most of them, anyway.
About 30 students remained behind — some international students who were stranded by border closings; others with personal or financial reasons for staying.
Since then they have lived in the dorms of the nearly deserted college, maintaining social distance from each other, picking up package meals at the cafeteria and taking them to their dorm rooms to eat. Like all the rest of Northland's students, they've been doing coursework online and communicating with instructors and fellow students through conferencing applications.
"It's definitely odd," said Kathryn Simpson, a student from Holmen. "It feels like summertime, because I work here over the summer."
Shelly Ray, of the Chicago suburb Flossmoor, Ill., is one of a few students still on campus who isn't on the college meal plan. She said the one time students generally see each other is when they go to pick up their meals and because she doesn't participate, she seldom sees anyone on campus.
"I'm just staying in my room for days on end," she said. "It's not a great life. This past week was finals week so I had a lot of work to get done, and it kind of messed up my sleep schedule, so I've been waking up at 2 p.m."
Not that Ray has much time for socializing. She works
three jobs and before coronavirus, she had plenty of personal interaction in her jobs.
"Now they have all been converted to online work," she said, forcing her to become something of a hermit.
Ray said the dearth of human companionship was less stressful than the lack of certainty about her future. The senior at Northland didn't return home to her parents' house because they moved just before the shut-down order and weren't prepared for another resident. She didn't know about her job prospects either, and was saddened that her parents wouldn't be able to come up for her commencement.
"I am going to be a first-generation college graduate, and I was really looking forward to having them come up for the ceremonies and to show them the sights," she said. "Now there isn't going to be any great fanfare."
Simpson at least has a roommate, Emma Hakanson of Savage, Minn., to keep her company.
"So luckily I am not alone all the time in the silence," she said.
Simpson also connects with friends around the country, playing video games online together.
"But, yeah, it has been pretty quiet, long days," she said.
Those long days will stretch into summer, when she'll work in the college garden —a job she and others are beginning early.
"So I get to get outside and enjoy the summer weather," she said.
Hakanson also will stay in Ashland through the summer, working at a job on campus. Like Simpson, she plans to return for classes in the fall.
"Hopefully with more students," she said.
The three and other students who remain on campus were allowed to stay by arrangement with the college as other students packed up and left.
Melissa Harvey, Northland's interim dean of students, said the students are experiencing a school year like no other.
"I've talked with some students, and they are remaining connected as best they can through coursework, social media, but at the same time having to maintain their social distance," she said. "They use words like, 'quiet,' 'lonely,' but resoundingly across the board, it's just 'different.'"
Meanwhile the college hasn't forgotten the students.
One small token was made by Greta Oliphant, the director of dining services for the college.
On her own initiative, Oliphant put together bags of Easter goodies for students, full of Peeps marshmallow candy, chewing gum, Cadbury eggs, jelly beans, Sweet Tarts, Reese's Pieces, and perhaps the most useful gift, hand-sanitizer spray.
"We wanted to do something really special, even if it's a small gift bag, in celebration of the Easter holiday," Oliphant said. "I think the students really appreciate these small acts of kindness during this time."
"It was a nice thing to do," said Hakanson. "I just wonder where they got the sanitizer. You can't find that anywhere."
Oliphant said the spray came with the kitchen crew's regular supplies and because the dining facilities had been for the most part shut down, it wasn't used. So she opened a carton and gave some to each of the students.
That's not all the students will take with them when the term ends. They also will take stories about enduring one of the most unusual semesters ever at the college.
"I don't think anyone has ever experienced a pandemic like this in a very long time," Simpson said. "It definitely makes you think, what if this comes back, what if there is a new disease? You wonder if this will change the way that we live from here on out."
The city of Ashland has begun planning for a slow transition to a post-COVID-19 world for city workers.
City Administrator Brant Kucera told City Council members this week that the small number of confirmed virus cases in Ashland and Bayfield counties offers room to be "cautiously optimistic" that a slow return of some city workers over the next three weeks may be possible.
The return to work will involve significant restrictions for workers, including the mandatory use of face masks. And all bets are off if the Northland sees a spike in confirmed cases.
"Obviously, we are all kind of learning on the job," Kucera said.
Kucera said he, Mayor Debra Lewis, Fire Chief David Wegener and Police Chief Jim Gregoire meet every day or two to discuss issues raised by coronavirus.
"Currently things are pretty calm around the area," he said. "I think it's important to note that Ashland County has only two confirmed cases. Bayfield County has three confirmed cases, Iron County has two, so this region is obviously not seeing the impact of a lot of confirmed cases."
Kucera said that Wegener, in his contacts with other emergency service providers, had not turned up the feared spike in COVID-19 cases.
"What we have learned is that the hospital is not seeing anybody at the respiratory center," he said. "Right now this is obviously all good news. The fear of overwhelming our healthcare system, at least thus far, has not come to pass."
Kucera said he hoped the state's stay-home order and social distancing were responsible for keeping COVID-19 infections down. And because the outbreak began at the end of winter rather than the summer tourist season, not a lot of virus-carriers were visiting the area.
Nevertheless, Kucera warned that the resumption of city services would be deliberate. He said street crews remain on the job, working four 10-hour shifts a week, but with only half the workforce on at any given time to reduce contact between workers.
At the same time, Ashland Finance Director Julie Vaillancourt has begun to make
projections on the impact of the shutdowns on city revenue. With parks, campgrounds and the recreational vehicle park shut down and reduced income from the 0.5% sales tax, the city will have a budget hole to fill.
"I can bring people back to work, but I can't make people spend money on retail and restaurants when none of it is open," Kucera said.
To begin filling the budget gap, the city has cancelled summer hiring of part-time workers for things such as the parks staff and will instead have full-time employees do that work.
Kucera said the city boat launch is open and the marina will open May 1, but campgrounds will likely be closed at least through Memorial Day. Boaters would be encouraged to pay their launch fees online.
"We want the workers and the public to interact as little as possible," he said.
City Council members also are considering other measures to help residents through the corona crisis — perhaps expanding WiFi hotspots, offering additional food and housing assistance and creating a fund to help restaurant workers who are laid off.