Staff and students look back on a year of pandemic

By Bill Althaus
The Examiner

That ever-present pandemic cloud showed just how exceptional students, staff, administrators, teachers and coaches can be when their backs are pushed against the wall while wearing masks and making sure they are socially distanced.

The past school year will one day be written about in history books; and whether you attended school in Independence, Blue Springs, Grain Valley or the Fort Osage School District, you have a story to tell.

William Chrisman High School custodian Mike Schollhammer wipes down the tables in the cafeteria during summer school.

And, unlike the tales of seasons lost, scholarships yanked away and the tragic loss of  loved ones, these stories are the type that resonate the human spirit that makes the hardships and social changes that seem so strange, somehow seem like the new normal – a new normal many hope disappears along with all those masks, hand sanitizers and reminders to wash your hands.

"I don't believe I have ever been as proud of a school district – teachers, staff, administrators, the students, everyone – as I have been of our district this past school year," said Independence School District Superintendent Dale Herl, who along with the school board made the decision to start school in 2020 on Aug. 24, some two weeks before many other school districts.

That was one of those instants that was both praised and criticized in the same breath.

"I was so proud of Dr. Herl and everyone in the school district for having the guts to open school early, to see what was going to happen," William Chrisman activities director Greg McGhee said. "I loved it, I just loved it! Get school started, get kids in the building – unless they choose to remain home and learn virtually – but those who wanted to be here were here and that was so important."

"Kids need a routine, and we were able to give them one."

All area schools were also able to give their students something else, the chance to not only survive, but thrive in a classroom, on a playing field or even kneeling on a wrestling mat.

"We could do that because of our unsung heroes," McGhee added, "like Mike Schollhammer, the best custodian in the business."

"No one knows how hard the custodians worked at our school, or the other schools in the district," McGhee said. "If you think I stay late after an event, talk to Mike."

Schollhammer is one of the behind-the-scene members of the school district whose work allowed students to return their respective buildings.

"It was easy to spend the extra hours sanitizing and making sure the hallways, classrooms, bathrooms and all the rooms in our school were sanitized because everyone made sure to thank us and let us know how much they appreciated the work we did," Schollhammer said.

"We still worked the same hours, but we rolled up our sleeves and got after it! We would sanitize everything in the building on a daily basis and hit the hot spots every hour. We'd make sure all the gyms and bleachers in the gyms and outdoors were all sanitized and that all the equipment was sanitized, too."

"We never wanted a student or teacher or anyone who is a part of our family to feel like it wasn't safe to come into our building. We took it to heart – like I said, we got after it! And I'm proud of everything we were able to accomplish this past school year."

Truman High School' principal Ronda Scott gets emotional when talking about the love, dedication and foresight she and her peers were a part of.

"In retrospect, we made the right decision to start early and give our students the chance to study in the classroom, or virtually, if that was their preference," Scott said. "But it was so great to see our students in the building. We opened up with the students first and foremost in our minds, and I believe it paid off during a different, but highly successful school year."

Herl is quick to back that statement, adding, "While working with our the school board, we asked two questions when it came to any decision we made."

"First, was it in the best interest of our students?"

"And second, was it in the best interest of our community? Early on, I am sure you remember how things were changing on a minute-by-minute and hour-by-hour basis. We would have plan A, then B, C and even D. It changed quickly, but we always made sure that whatever we decided upon, that it benefited out students and community."

First-year Blue Springs High School activities director Alan Hull can appreciate, and recall, all those changes.

"Listen man, I played a small role in what was happening at Blue Springs High School, but I can tell you we kept grinding – we kept on keeping on, and we all got through it!" Hull said.

When asked about the changes in the schedule or the availability of student/athletes – basically, changes in everything he dealt with – Hull just chuckled.

"We'd have a schedule, or a plan, or put something together and it might change 20 times before it actually happened, and I'm not exaggerating – things changed that much and that quickly," Hull said. "And our focus was always on our students, our athletes, everyone involved with our family here at the high school."

And how do those student/athletes react to a school year that was one for the history books – and one that provided a lifetime of memories?

"When we got through football, I was like, 'We're going to do this,'" said Examiner 2020 Football Player of the Year Cole Keller, who also starred in basketball, track and baseball. "Then we got through basketball. Then, it came time for spring sports, which were canceled last year."

"That hurt, especially for our seniors. So this year, we dedicated track and baseball to the seniors who missed out last year."

Keller medaled in the 400 and 800 relays at the Missouri State Track and Field Championship and played a big role in the Eagles' second-place finish at the Class 5 final four in baseball.

"We didn't just survive! We had fun, we had a lot of success and we were able to do things to put our school on the map in a bigger class," Keller added. "I hope things get back to normal for all the high school athletes next year, but if you have to deal with a pandemic, I think we did it the right way.  And by 'we' I mean everyone involved with every high school in the area."