Silver Linings Series, Howells-Dodge's Mark Ernst: Conversations around COVID-19

Silver Linings Series, Howells-Dodge's Mark Ernst: Conversations around COVID-19

*This is the third installment in the three-part "Silver Linings Series". This discussion occurred on November 9 for an article titled “Silver Linings (Without the Playbook),” which ran in the winter edition of the NCSA Today Magazine.

Q: Think back to March 2020,  when the pandemic broke and schools were forced to close overnight. Walk me through that initial experience. What did you learn about the culture in place at Howells-Dodge and the staff, and the students that you get to work with every day?

A: Reverting back to then, I remember I was at my brother's and we were watching state basketball on TV, because I always go to Lincoln, but I wasn't able to go to any games. I was texting our principal back and forth saying, "Man, this is getting serious. I don't know what's going to happen. Let's meet on Sunday." We met on Sunday…I had a whiteboard and we just chalked out, "Okay, what are all the things that we need to think about if we get shut down, because it sounds like things might be going that route."

We had a plan of attack, a strategy of how we were going to do things. We got to "Okay, we're going to try to stay open as long as we can, because we feel like it's better to be in school than out of school." Then boom, on that next day things had already progressed.

We took that Monday off saying, "We just need more information about what's going on and what we're going to have to do." Then I did another all call, our Alert Now system, and just said, "Hey, we're shutting down. Here's what we're going to do." What we did was we brought the teachers in per week, "This is a planning week. Let's get things situated. We're not going to force feed things because we want to make sure you're prepared because we've never done this before, the e-learning and doing remote learning for kids.”

We have a device for everybody, we’re one-to-one, so that was great. We determined how we're going to have parents pick things up and those types of things. Then we told our teachers to plan in two week increments, plan Zooms. Let's have office hours. I don't expect students to be on a Zoom all day. I don't think you can run a class that way, just my personal opinion. Let's do the best we can. The staff was great. We prepped them before state basketball that, "Hey, something's coming about." But then when we came back on Tuesday, we gave them that full week to work.

They worked diligently to get ready for remote learning, and then we rolled things out the next week. Parents, they didn't like it, but they understood. They weren't upset with us, but they would rather see their kids in school and not have to take off work and those things, but they understood that we had to do it. I don't think I had any complaints. They just said, "Whatever we have to do. We'd prefer in-person learning, but we understand." I'm thankful for that because I know some schools dealt with some negativity with shutting down, but we didn't really see any of that.

We had some questions, concerns, but we were very transparent with everybody. We tried to update them weekly on what our status was and what we're going to try to do to make things as best we could. It was a crazy time, and everyone was just trying to do their best. Just trying to do what was in the best interest of our students and our school.

Q: Right, so you got the 2019/20 school year to the finish line, which was just such a massive accomplishment in itself. But I'm assuming your summer wasn't exactly a relaxing three months for your staff, for your administrative team there. What did your summer look like, and how did you prepare your district, and your staff, and your students, and your community for just so many absolute unknowns?

A: Well, first off, in June you get all your state reporting stuff done and then July, normally I take some time off. I think I took maybe four days off. I get 20 days where I can take off, and I took about four. Came back, regrouped. Talking with our principal we said, "Okay, mid-July, we need have a plan in place.” We could submit that plan after our board meeting after running through with the board on making sure that everything was agreed upon and we were on the same page.

I needed them to approve it. I needed them be them to be on board because they're the voice of the people obviously, they're the ones that are elected officials that help run the school. We looked at other people's plans a little bit, some of the bigger schools. Elkhorn came to mind to me. Dr. (Bary) Habrock was one of my teachers way back in the day when he was a young educator at Centennial. I really respect him and his team. I looked at that and I liked all the things that they had put in place in Elkhorn.

We looked at that as a model and then we adapted it to what would work for Howells-Dodge. I held a three-hour board meeting to run through all the protocols and procedures and a lot of the unknown. We knew the model needed to be flexible, adaptable, because things were basically changing day by day and week by week. We came up with a plan and I know some schools our size, we did not make it mandatory to wear a mask right away.

We decided to highly recommend them. Because people wanted to stay in school and people wanted to have activities, kids wore them. I think we only had six to 10 kids not wearing them out of over 330 staff and students, so that's pretty good. All our elementary really was wearing them. It really came down to, there were some seven, 12 students that decided they weren't going to wear them at first. Then we got to in this middle, September, and things started an uptick hence we decided to go ahead and just mandate masks. It was just easier, and pretty much everyone was wearing them anyway.

I don't ask for them to necessarily agree, but understand that this is what we got to do to stay open and keep our kids in the building. Remote learning can work in snippets I think, or in small doses. But if you're asking kids to do this for nine months, I think that's difficult to do.

That really spoke to me as, that's something else I want to drive home is, we need to stay open. We need to do these things to stay open so that our parents can be at work. Especially because we have a lot of healthcare workers. We have a lot of nurses that have kids in our building, and it's very important to keep them working in the hospitals and not being exposed as much because they already are exposed quite a bit to working in hospitals and clinics.

Where we have the struggle, and I understand to a point, but mass gatherings. Whether it's weddings, funerals, preemptive parties outside of the school. We're not seeing spread in school, we're seeing it happening at other things and then it possibly comes in from that.

Q: I know you touched briefly on the technology, the remote learning, that shift to e-learning. If you needed to close down right now, right at this minute, how much better prepared are you for that sudden transition compared to March 2020?

A: I think they're fully-prepped now. If you look at, too, when we have kids quarantine, we're communicating via remote learning that way. We're already doing a little bit of that. Now, it's not an option for people here, we're all in-person. If you opt out, there's a homeschool route or other things. We just are not equipped. We have single section, so it's hard to do. I would be asking my teachers to teach in the building for seven, eight hours and then have to go home and manage the online stuff as well, so we don't do that at this point.

But I would say that on August 5th, right before school started, we did have some Canvas training. We purchased Canvas for our K-12 so that we have a common place where parents know this is where your assignments and your information is. I think we've developed a district plan that works for all our parents and it's published within our COVID plan. If they need to understand, "Okay, this is what happens if we go remote learning." It is spelled out to a T what the expectations are of the teachers, the students, and the parents.

Q: How flexible has your staff, your educators, how flexible have they've been throughout the pandemic? As a school administrator, can you say enough about them and their attitude and the way they've approached this with?

A: What's cool about this, one, it has validated in-person learning and proven you can't replace a teacher with a computer. I think that's something to be said. Two, I can't speak enough about my staff and staffs around the area. You hear all these stories about my staff members basically carrying the mindset of whatever we have to do to have kids in the building we're going to do it. I know that hasn't been the case everywhere, but I'm very proud of our staff. They've rolled with it, "What do we need to do Mr. Ernst? What can we do to help? Whatever we have to do to make sure that we're safe, we'll wear a mask. Tell us what we need to do and we'll help out in any way we can."

I think that the overwhelming majority of the State of Nebraska and the educators in Nebraska have that mindset, too…whether it's remote learning, in-person learning, hybrid. I think everyone wants what's best for our kids and our communities, and they want to make sure that they're helping out their schools in any way they can and I'm really appreciative of that. I can't say enough about my staff. I have colleagues around the area that we meet all the time and you hear those stories about teachers going above and beyond to make sure that we do things to help our kids out, because that's ultimately is all about.

What I always tell our teachers, even pre-COVID, is, "Hey, you're a parent. You want what's best for your kids and you also want what's best for your students." I think we see that now more than ever with all that has gone on throughout the pandemic.

Q: Led me right into my final question there. How about the resilience of the kids? I mean, from the seniors in the class of 2020 who had those monumental moments in their lives just taken from them through no fault of their own, or anyone's really, to kindergartners who wear their masks all day, every day. That can't be easy. Can you tell me a little bit about the resilience your students at Howells-Dodge have shown throughout this ordeal?

A: The toughest thing I've had to do and our principal Mr. (Cole) Fischer had to do is tell our juniors and seniors, "Hey, we're not going to do a prom. Hey, there's going to be no FFA-FCCLA Banquet. We're not going to have an awards night. We're going to do things virtually." Boy, that was really tough. The one thing I did make sure I promised our seniors and our senior parents is that we will have a graduation ceremony. We will honor those seniors, and we were able to do that on August 8th. Things were relaxed enough. We still did 50% capacity and we social distanced everybody out, but it was a successful situation there.

As far as kids wearing masks, it's pretty much second nature now. Once you set an expectation and the staff sets the example, "Well heck, everyone else is wearing a mask," it really is easy. I have a first-grader and if I say "Hey, you need to put your mask on." He answers simply "Okay." It's not an argument, it’s not "I don't want to do it." Kids are pretty resilient in that way. They're doing what they have to do to stay in the building and I appreciate that.

I also see how hard it was. I have a sixth-grader, a fourth-grader, and a first-grader now. But last year when we shut down, the disappointment on their face. Yeah, it might have been cool for a day or two to not have school and not be in the building. But after a while they miss their friends, they miss their activities, they miss being in the building and learning. That's our push, that's my plea to the people to follow the rules, follow the three Cs. Whatever we need to do is to keep our kids in the building.

I do that every week when we have an alert that goes out. I record a message on the phone, and it's sent out to everybody and it's just, "Thank you for what you're doing, keep doing it. We want to keep our kids in the building. We want to keep activities going." It's not a scare tactic. It really is just that, "Please, help us all out." I just try to do what we need to do to do what's best for our kids.

Q: Awesome. Before I let you go, are there any other silver linings to come out of the pandemic, successes at Howells-Dodge you’d like to share?

A: Probably better sanitary practices, which will benefit us during flu seasons down the road and things like that. These aren't bad things to have to do. I'm not saying that I want a mask ever again once we can get past this. But as far as the cleaning and washing hands and stuff like that, those are things that got to be positives, I would say. I don't know, I'm just proud of our kids and communities across the state. I think Nebraska, as far as education is concerned, is one of the leaders in the nation. I'm just proud of all the schools and what they're doing, and what they're trying to do to make this work.

Because it's burning people out. People are, you can see it's wearing on them to a point. But we all have to stick together, we have to build each other up. I read a lot of John Gordon and I try to stay as positive as I possibly can. Even though we all have our weak moments, we have to build each other up and keep each other going. And hopefully, eventually, we'll get a vaccine or something that can curb this to the point where we can get back to normalcy.