By ANDREW MCGINN
It’s now been a year since sisters Adison and Amelia Gallagher set foot inside a school building.
It’s been so long, in fact, that the school they both were attending when the pandemic began is no longer even their school.
Adi, 14, was to have started high school this past fall at the new, $34 million Greene County High School and Career Academy, while Amelia, 11, was to have joined her sixth-grade classmates at the old high school, newly renovated for middle school students.
Instead, last fall, they were among 11 percent of students in the Greene County Community School District who opted to stay home and begin the 2021-22 school year online. Today the number of remote learners at Greene County sits at 8 percent, according to Superintendent Tim Christensen.
Obviously, some students ended up deciding that remote learning wasn’t for them. (Er, most likely it was their parents who concluded they no longer had the patience to troubleshoot technical problems or no longer could afford for their kids to graze continually in the kitchen.)
I’ll be honest: I didn’t know what to expect when I paid the Gallagher girls a visit recently. There has been no shortage of news stories nationally about how remote learning during the worst pandemic in more than a century has been a disaster, both academically and emotionally. Stories abound of unmotivated kids who are falling behind as remote learning lays waste to previous academic gains. USA Today in December wrote about one 14-year-old student whose grades plummeted from As and Bs to Ds and Fs.
Only naturally, given the times, the issue has been highly politicized. Here in Iowa, the Republican junta even set about punishing school districts whose locally elected leaders opted for all-remote learning, giving more money to those districts that forged ahead with in-person instruction at the governor’s insistence. And for that extra-special touch of vindictiveness, the Legislature even went after the license of Des Moines’ superintendent for daring to oppose Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds on the issue of reopening.
Never mind that, by November, Greene County Elementary School scarcely had any warm bodies left to teach classes. Eighteen staff members on one Friday alone were out with COVID-19. One was in the hospital.
Large numbers of students were at home in quarantine as well.
Along the way, the local school board initially shunned a mask mandate, then reluctantly embraced one, then decided enough was enough: the mask mandate is now set to be relaxed the Monday following Easter — almost one year to the day that Greene County Public Health announced the first local case of COVID-19.
As of this past Monday, just 17 percent of Greene County residents had been fully vaccinated.
So in deciding to check in on the Gallagher girls after a year in near-total isolation, I semi-expected to find two incarnations of the Jodie Foster character Nell — two unintelligible, unsocialized children clearly in need of proper schooling.
Instead, the first thing I saw was a drawing table, on which sat an uncanny portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died in September. Adi, I would learn, rendered the late Supreme Court justice in pencil during her first-trimester Intro to Art class. She’d never before attempted a portrait, she explained.
Clearly, she’s off to a good start.
It was much harder to try participating at home in a baking class.
For her part, 11-year-old Amelia said the lowest grade she’s received this year has been a B or a B-plus. She then flipped open her laptop to confirm.
“The lowest I have,” she said after double-checking, “is an A.”
The girls also spoke at length about the businesses they each started during the pandemic — Amelia launched Good Vibes, selling adjustable beaded bracelets of her own design, while Adi followed with Watercolors By Adi, an endeavor specializing in decorative bookmarks (complete with tassels).
As mom Mindy Gallagher explained, both businesses began as a way to relieve the boredom of isolation once winter arrived, and also as a way to buy Christmas presents. (Mindy and Ken Gallagher have six kids in all.)
They have since learned about expenses and profit margins.
While their wares are currently sold mostly to family and friends through Mindy’s Facebook page — Amelia talks about going big; like, Etsy big — the businesses are thriving enough that they were able to pool $500 in profits and donate them to PAWS this past weekend.
“We’re doing really well with our businesses,” Amelia said matter-of-factly. “We don’t need much money for ourselves.”
You hear that, Jeff Bezos?
“They’ve always been givers,” Mindy said.
Amelia, for example, has had a couple of birthdays in which she requested no presents for herself — instead, she asked that guests bring a gift for PAWS, the perpetually understaffed group of volunteers who care for the animals at the woefully inadequate Greene County Animal Shelter in Jefferson.
Here, we’ve been led to believe that remote learning during the pandemic is doing incalculable damage to the mental health of kids. And while every kid is certainly different — and there are those who are indeed floundering — what about those kids who are tender and caring by nature? Could it be that they’re actually thriving at home and would only struggle if made to attend a school where the mask mandate is only half-heartedly enforced?
Once, while at Target in Ames, Mindy and the girls watched in dismay as a woman in her 50s or 60s argued with an employee about not wearing a mask.
“They just don’t believe in how dangerous it is,” Amelia said of COVID-19, which has killed more than 542,000 Americans. “We choose to wear masks. I think it’s a little bit disrespectful to not wear a mask.”
The Gallagher family had perfectly valid reasons to opt for remote learning. Diabetes and asthma are present in the home, and there are grandparents down the street to protect. Mindy’s elderly father, Dick Pound, died last month from pancreatic cancer, but no one wanted to hasten his final days.
Middle son Brenner, a high school junior, is online this school year as well and is also doing admirably, according to Mindy. A Class 2A state wrestling qualifier his sophomore year, Brenner missed part of the 2021-22 wrestling season. Brenner eventually rejoined the team, but to make it possible, he lived in soccer coach Carl Behne’s basement for about a month and a half, Mindy said.
Mindy gives much credit to the teachers at Greene County Schools, who have been thrust into dual learning this school year.
While there were learning curves with technology to overcome, the Gallagher kids have taken to remote learning in a way that has gone largely unnoticed.
“They’re self-driven,” Mindy explained. “I don’t have to beg them, motivate them, bribe them.”
Maybe above all, though, the most important lesson for the Gallagher kids has been in empathy.
“We just want to be nice,” Adi said.
“And respectful,” Amelia added.