LUNCH DELIVERY: Karee Nielson, (from left) Michelle Stohlmann and Jenny Laughlin set up to hand out sack lunches Friday in the Ashland-Greenwood Middle School/High School parking lot. The school began the program with individual lunches last week and will continue in the coming week with meal packages consisting of five lunches to be handed out on Mondays. (Staff Photo by Anna Boggs)

ASHLAND – The COVID-19 pandemic threat has dramatically altered lives in the Ashland area. Local schools are not in session, a handful of downtown businesses are shuttered, and government offices are closed to the public.

On March 15, Ashland-Greenwood Public Schools Superintendent Jason Libal sent a message to families letting them know that classes were suspended until March 27 as state officials urged school districts.

The effect of the coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 disease, had already been felt by the students. During the week of the state boys basketball tournament, only family members of the players of teams who qualified were allowed to go to the games. That meant the majority of fans were forced to watch online as the Bluejays faced No. 1 seed Auburn in the first round.

As the coronavirus began spreading quickly in the state, things were changing for school districts like Ashland-Greenwood. Four days after his first announcement, Libal sent another message saying school was closed for an “indefinite period of time.”

“This is an extremely difficult decision that we do not take lightly,” the message read. “Safety of our students, staff and community continues to be our paramount duty.”

At the March 16 meeting of the Board of Education, Libal highlighted his decision process, saying the community spread of the coronavirus changed their original plan to close for two weeks.

The district implemented online/electronic enrichment opportunities for students on March 19 to deal with the closure.

“Our administrative team and district technology will continue to meet regarding learning opportunities and methods that we will provide in the future,” he said.

All students in grades 7 to 12 are normally assigned Chromebook laptop computers to use in school and at home through the district’s one-to-one technology program. Elementary and sixth grade students use computers exclusively at school, but during the closure are allowed to take a device home, Libal said.

To be able to do school work at home, students must have internet access. Libal said they surveyed the district families last week to determine internet access.

“We will be gathering the survey data related to internet service and determine how we can best provide access,” Libal said.

Libal said the school work will consist of enrichment activities for students rather than graded homework. The district is relying on guidance form the Nebraska Department of Education on how learning requirements and expectations.

“The biggest challenge is providing equitable learning to all students,” he added.

Even though the buildings are closed and students are at home, teachers are still expected to plan and provide instruction to their students, Libal said. Because access to the facilities is limited, most are working from home.

The ultimate goal is to get students back in the buildings as soon as possible once the pandemic is over, the superintendent said. Administrators will use “common sense” to determine when school resumes, Libal said.

“Our kiddos are going to need some sense of normalcy,” he said. “Our hope is we will be able to provide that before the school year concludes.”

The district is also waiting for guidance from state education officials on how to proceed regarding class credits and graduation requirements, Libal said.

“From our understanding, many if not all of the state and federal requirements will be waived due to the circumstances,” he said.

School celebrations like prom and graduation may be rescheduled at a later date, according to the superintendent.

“We are hopeful that we will be able to provide our students some form of prom and graduation,” he said. “These may be summer events, however, we know and understand how important these events are to the students and their families.”

Providing nutritious food to students during breakfast and lunch is a vital part of the district, and Ashland-Greenwood is continuing to do so through innovative ways. District food service employees began distributing sack lunches to all students, regardless of income, last week in the middle school/high school parking lot.

“On Friday, March 20, we served 160 of our students,” Libal said.

This week, the district expanded the food service, taking the sack lunches to distribution sites in Greenwood, Memphis and Ashland’s eastside. The sacks are packed with five days’ worth of cereal for breakfast and lunch items, Libal said.

The district is also making sure that its classified staff (hourly employees) remain employed during this difficult time. Libal said all of the employees hired for nine months or 12 months are still working. Some report to their respective departments, while others are completing professional development at home and are “on call.”

“These employees are still getting paid,” he added.

The City of Ashland closed its doors to the public last Friday because of the pandemic, according to City Administrator Jessica Quady.

“We decided mid-week last week to close the office on Friday to walk-in traffic,” she said.

City services are being provided, and customers can still pay bills online, over the phone, by mail or they can utilize the drop box at City Hall. Building permit and other forms can be printed from the city’s website and turned in via the drop box.

Quady said the timing is right for residents to consider online bill pay options.

“It’s a good time to encourage people to set up automatic bank payments,” she said.

City officials are still determining whether or not to hold the annual Clean Up Day in April and how the compost pile will be handled. Quady said it is scheduled to open March 30.

City council meetings have been affected as well. The governor’s guidelines to limit public gatherings to 10 or fewer people means a limited number of people can attend the meetings. At last Thursday’s meeting, the council members sat at least six feet away from each other to comply with social distancing practices, Quady said.

Quady is looking into options for teleconferencing future meetings. At this point, she is considering cancelling the first meeting in April, scheduled for April 2, and holding just one meeting in April.

“It gives us some time to decide what’s the best way for us to meet,” she said.

With social distancing and public gathering limitations, interaction between friends, neighbors and sometimes family members is practically non-existent. But the community is rallying to create unity.

Last week, many Ashlanders posted shamrocks in their windows on St. Patricks’ Day. Families headed out on walks or drives to find as many as they could.

The fun continued with silly faces being posted in windows on a later day.

Local photographer Jada Scott of Jada Scott Photography has come up with an opportunity for Ashland-Greenwood juniors and seniors to wear their prom dresses and tuxes. She proposed a “porch prom” where the kids get dressed up, stay on their front porch, and she stops by to take their photos. The plan is to do this on April 4, the day prom was originally scheduled, Scott said on social media. Rain date is April 5.

Another interactive event planned in Ashland is a Cruise Night on March 28 from 5 to 10 p.m. Organized by Shane Haschke, the event will follow a planned route and he is encouraging participants to order a meal from one of the local restaurants to eat during the cruise.

“With all the mess of COVID-19, let’s do something fun with our kids, family and friends,” he wrote on the Facebook event page.

The Ashland-Greenwood Public Schools faculty and staff held a “parade” on Wednesday. Participants drove through Ashland and on to Greenwood, Memphis and the outlying lake communities to wave at their students.

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