Matt Degner remembers cancelling Iowa City Community School District international trips in February of 2020 because of a virus called COVID-19. He never imagined that one month later, he would be sending his students, teachers, and administrators home for the next year and a half.
“When we hit March 2020 and realized we wouldn’t be coming back to school, I was so proud of how our staff shifted to a ‘what-can-we-do’ mindset. What can we do to get technology to kids? What can we do to get meals to students? How do we still try to provide learning experiences for our students,” says Degner.
In this role, Degner oversees 29 different schools, hundreds of teachers and administrators, and thousands of students, all of whom had to adjust to an unprecedented school year.
“Our teachers were great all year. I am so thankful to be here in Iowa City with the high-quality professionals we have,” says Degner. “I think the world of them and what they did every day whether they were an online teacher or in the building. They did something no one else has ever done and there was no playbook for.”
Degner says that for him, the biggest priority was keeping people safe.
“The biggest concern for us and our guiding principle was that we really wanted to keep people safe. The impact it would have on our kids and our staff, who come from all ages or backgrounds, was a huge unknown, “ Degner says. “We will never know if we did too much, but we will know if we did too little. We didn’t feel comfortable playing with people’s health or playing with people’s lives.”
While safety was the biggest concern, Degner says that the impact on families was also something the district had to tackle.
“The disparate impact it was having on different families and different students was a big concern. We tried to put an equity lens on top of our work and tried to minimize the impact to the greatest extent possible,” says Degner. “We wanted to make sure students and families had access to food during the pandemic. We also wanted to make sure they had access to technology and Wi-Fi so we had a request process to provide devices and Wi-Fi access so the families didn’t have to struggle with that burden.”
Degner says that despite the challenges, the Iowa City Community School District teachers, administrators, and staff persevered and are excited to return to the classroom.
“We didn’t throw our hands up in the air and complain or say we were done. We just figured out a way to make it work with what we had,” says Degner. “The year was difficult, and there was system fatigue, but the commitment to excellence is still there. They are ready to come back and be at the top of their game. I am confident that our teachers are going to give their best every day they show up. I’m incredibly grateful for the effort they put in all year.”
Looking forward, Degner wants to use the motivation of the ICCSD community to focus on equity issues.
“We were presented with a problem and came together, and we did really big things for large groups of people. We did the impossible, and when we think about all these other problems that plague our district, our state, and our nation, we can do the impossible,” says Degner. “If we can take that same passion and motivation and put that into our strategic plan and equity goals as a system right now, we can do the same thing. I think that goal needs to be when we say ‘all’ we mean ‘all’ and that we can find success with all of our students. If it can happen anywhere, it can happen in Iowa city. That inspires me to be the best we can for our kids in our district every day.”