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Pandemic, derecho and the Big ‘C’

Date: Monday, January 11, 2021

To say 2020 was challenging is an understatement

"Noreen Bush"After 2020, every superintendent in the state will have stories to tell. Noreen Bush, however, probably has the biggest story to tell. No, really.

Sure, everyone had to deal with the pandemic and all its challenges and quirks. And a good swath of them had to deal with the August derecho. But in the midst of all this, Bush received a gut punch: She was diagnosed with an advanced stage of cervical cancer.

But Bush characteristically plays it down.

“It’s an annoyance,” she said, laughing. “There were so many things going on, then ‘this’ happened.”

Despite chemo sessions, Bush had Herculean tasks to perform.

“When I was getting chemo, I was on my phone nonstop,” she said. “After all, I was just sitting there.”

The state’s second-largest district with 17,000 students was already knee-deep in its return-to-learn plans when the Aug.10 derecho hit with a vengeance.

“We were looking out the windows and we all knew a thunderstorm was coming and then all of a sudden the tornado sirens went off,” Bush said. “As we congregated in the basement, we had to socially distance, which created a bit of confusion.

“That’s when all of our phones started going off. Principals were trying to get ahold of us. We weren’t clued in what was going on outside. We heard a very large crash and knew something had happened to the building. It turns out the casing from a huge air conditioning unit on the roof had blown off into the parking lot.

"Washington Exterior"“On that day, we had our daycares in session and sixth-grade orientations were going on. No one was hurt – there’s a reason we practice those storm drills, not just for students but staff as well. Everyone in the schools went into an emergency mode and got everyone safe.”

Immediately after the storm subsided, Bush knew that she and her team had to get out to the schools. Communication was difficult, with cell phone towers down throughout the region.

“We got into cars not realizing there were trees blocking everywhere (Cedar Rapids lost 65 percent of its tree canopy),” she said. “Eventually, we were able to reach everyone through landlines.”

But assessing damage was just one piece to this natural-disaster puzzle. They had kids in school who needed to be transported home.

“Very quickly were able to get pick-up plans in place to get kids home from the schools,” she said.

Having taken care of immediate needs, about a dozen administrative employees pulled up chairs in the atrium to discuss what’s next.

“With the double whammy of the pandemic and the derecho, it felt truly overwhelming,” she said. “I just wanted to give everyone a hug but of course I couldn’t. I told them, ‘I need to call (Iowa Department of Education Director) Ann Lebo and (Deputy Director) Amy Williamson now, because our return-to-learn plan just blew up in our faces.’”

The derecho, with winds whipping up to 140 mph, damaged all 34 of the district’s buildings, 31 of them schools.

“We had to immediately assess what was what,” Bush said. “By the next morning, we had made it to every building. We started taking lots of photos of the damage. When Director Lebo called me, I was like, ‘I don’t know what we’re going to do.’”

That moment of hesitation didn’t last. Within two days of the derecho, the district had determined it would take months to fully recover. They didn’t, however, have months to get students back to class.

The district determined that most of the elementary schools sustained less damage than the other buildings and focused on repairs there. They set a goal of starting school Sept. 21, with elementary students in the classrooms. All three high schools were extensively damaged, so high schoolers were going to have to start online.

"Pierce Elementary"“We couldn’t wait for answers, we just had to go,” Bush said. “We didn’t know if we would be reimbursed for meals (they were), but kids had to eat. We didn’t know if we would be reimbursed for employees not working (they were). We just had to do it.”

And district employees came together.

“We have an incredible group of people, amazing educators who I would put up against anyone else in the nation,” she said. “We kept saying, ‘What do we need? What can we do?’

“We kept our focus on the kids, worked as a team and made decisions with the best information that we had. We continued to think positive.

“Through it all, Ann (Lebo) was a great help. She really helped me work out so much of this.”

Cedar Rapids received a waiver of instructional time and worked quickly to reopen schools a month later than planned while being able to maintain its scheduled last day of school as June 1. In addition, the district accelerated its five-year technology plan, grounded in equity and access, by two years in order to meet the needs of students. Devices and internet access were offered to each and every student.

The district also turned its attention to social-emotional learning, focusing on its educators and staff.

“An adult who isn’t doing well cannot do well by students,” Bush said. “When we were in the midst of our return-to-learn plans, there were a lot of people in a panic. No one had gone through this before. 

"teacher online class"“We have to understand that some have lost loved ones, lost their homes, had spouses lose jobs. Instead of saying ‘what’s wrong with you?’ we need to say ‘what happened to you.’ Everything we approached was with love and care.”

Bush said during the calamity of her first 11 months on the job – yes, she became superintendent just last February – she has learned a lot about human nature.

“I always knew children are amazing resilient beings,” she said. “Ask them questions and they will tell you a lot. That’s true with adults. I have learned the critical importance of positive, healthy relationships. When people are working toward a common vision, a vision that is clear and focused, that’s when efficacy starts rolling where everyone knows where we’re heading. It’s also true that when people don’t know the vision, they get angry.”

Between the pandemic and the derecho, Bush said she sees a sea change in the way work is approached.

“Our practices have changed forever,” she said.  “Perhaps we won’t be driving across town for a meeting every time.  I think our teachers are going to be using more technology than ever before. It forced teachers to think about schedules, collaboration differently. Teachers can access each other. They are collaborating. There are a lot of plusses that will come from this.”

As for her “annoyance,” she takes it one day at a time.

“When I first was diagnosed, I kept it quiet because I didn’t want the focus on me when so many others were in need,” Bush said. “But I knew I would finally have to say something before my hair started falling out.

"social distance classroom"“When I first wore a scarf on my head, someone said, ‘oh, really cute scarf.’ People are so nice.”

A note from Noreen
From the onset of my diagnosis, I felt it was important to share with our community as I felt they really deserved to know. I also knew that my physical appearance would change (hair loss), and I wanted to be direct with everyone about why that was happening. Above all, though, I know how incredibly wonderful our staff and community members are. I knew that we would get through everything together.

What I did not anticipate was the number of staff members, staff members' loved ones, or community members who have also been affected by cancer. There is a closeness and unspoken support that comes with fellow patients, friends, and family members who are in this circle. I had no idea how many connections and fellow warriors would be walking hand in hand with me on this journey.

I feel so blessed and so supported. I have continued to provide our staff and community members updates; our Cedar Rapids family has been absolutely incredible to me. It makes me want to work even harder for them every day. I'm so very proud to serve this generous, loving, and resilient community. I don't think I can capture into words how special Cedar Rapids is to me...especially now.