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Noreen Bush Keeps Her Focus as Cedar Rapids Schools Chief

The superintendent of the second-largest school district in Iowa has been on the frontlines, leading 16,000 students and staff through unprecedented times that included a pandemic, a historic storm and a personal health crisis.

Sixty percent of K-12 students in America started the 2020-2021 school year fully remote, according to estimates from McKinsey and Company. Just over a year since schools shut their doors to slow the spread of coronavirus, the great majority of statewide orders have been lifted. It has largely fallen to district leaders to find a way forward that can satisfy public health officials, parents, teachers and politicians.

One in particular has gained national attention for navigating the path forward for students and teachers. Noreen Bush, superintendent of the Cedar Rapids Community School District (CRCSD), works in one of five states where state officials have already ordered all schools to provide in-person instruction. Like her colleagues across the country, she’s been buffeted by the uncertainty, risks, educational setbacks, misinformation, resource demands and constant need for reinvention that the pandemic has brought to public schools. 

“This past year has pointed us in so many different directions in response to things that have happened,” she says. “But it always comes back to the same direction of serving our kids and doing whatever we need to do to get them what they need.”

As it happened, the greatest public health crisis in a century was just one of the harrowing twists and turns that Superintendent Bush encountered as she and her staff worked to stay the course. Her ability to rise above the challenges hasn't gone unnoticed.  Bush has received the 2021 Women in Leadership Award from the American Association of School Administrators. 
A socially distanced classroom in a Cedar Rapids School (Photo: Cedar Rapids Community School District)

Iowa Closes Its Schools for the Year

CRCSD is the second-largest district in Iowa, serving more than 16,000 students. About half qualify for free and reduced lunch, says Bush, and English language learners in the district speak 60 languages. Bush is the district’s first woman superintendent, selected in February 2020 by its Board of Education. 

Since 2017, she has worked as associate, deputy and interim superintendent. When the continuing spread of the coronavirus forced the district to reimagine its operations, it had the benefit of being in the hands of someone who knew it well.

On March 13, 2020, Gov. Kim Reynolds recommended that Iowa schools close for four weeks. The district got to work on a plan for continuous learning during what was expected to be a short break. At the beginning of April the break was extended until April 30, and before that date arrived, Reynolds ordered schools to remain closed for the remainder of the school year.

Iowa schools were directed to develop plans that took them through the spring and into the beginning of the new school year in August. “We knew right away that if we were going to give families the option to stay remote, we’d have to get devices in the hands of every child,” says Bush.

In the 2019-2020 school year, all high school students in the district had been given Chromebooks. These were also available to middle school students at a two-to-one ratio, but they had not been allowed to take them home. After deciding on Chromebooks for children at elementary through high school levels, and iPads for preschool and kindergarten children, the district’s executive director of digital literacy and tech manager reached out to vendors to make sure they could get the devices they needed.

“We knew that would be the first thing to do,” says Bush. “I’m so glad we decided to do it quickly, because by June the vendors had run out, with delays until October or November.”

The hardware needed for August was in the pipeline, but the spring semester extended through May and students and families still needed their schools in the moment.
During the spring school closure, and throughout the summer, the district provided more than 25,000 meals a week to students who depended on its food programs. (Photo: Cedar Rapids Community School District)

Providing Food, Health Care and Education

Schools have come to fill a range of needs, says Bush, from nutrition and emotional support to wellness services such as dental, vision and hearing screenings. Academic progress was not the only thing at stake if connection to the community suffered.

Thousands of students depend on CRCSD for food, and while the schools were closed, the district distributed more than 25,000 meals a week – a warm lunch and breakfast for the following day – available at multiple pickup sites throughout the district. USDA funding made it possible to continue this service through the summer, with meals available to anyone 18 years old or younger whether they were members of the district or not.

The delivery of new educational content was stopped, in part because there was no guarantee that every student would have equal access to it. “That was heartbreaking, to not give kids what you want to give them from a learning point of view,” says Bush. “But we also kept in mind what was most important, which was their health and their safety and trying to keep them as engaged as possible.”

For high schoolers, grades were frozen where they had been at midterm, and students could let that grade stand or improve it through remote help from a teacher, work study groups or independent study, followed by an online assessment. Younger students in the district, whose performance is evaluated in relation to established standards, were also helped to improve. 

Reinforcement packets were available at lunch pickup sites or mailed to students. The district had some online course offerings for high school students, and check-ins and online meetings were available to families, but not all students had Internet access.

“It was a true pronouncement of inequity across our system,” says Bush. “To say the spring was bumpy would be an understatement.” 

Kennedy High School seniors pick up the caps and gowns they will wear in a virtual graduation ceremony, along with yard signs announcing their membership in the Class of 2020.

Senior Year Disruptions

High school seniors were a special case. Rites of passage such as graduation, prom and senior awards, culminating experiences of 13 years in public education, could not go forward as in-person gatherings of cherished friends and families.

“A lot of grieving happened in the spring,” says Bush. “It was real trauma and real loss.”

The community pooled resources to create the best experience possible for the Class of 2020. Yard signs were printed for graduates, and drive-through distribution was set up at schools for seniors to collect a sign and their cap and gown. Planted in neighborhoods throughout the city, the signs marked routes for celebratory parades of decorated cars.

Each graduate was filmed crossing a stage with their diploma and then adjusting their tassel. Complete video ceremonies, one for each high school, were aired on local television and webcast so out-of-town relatives could join. (They can now be seen on the district’s YouTube channel.)
The Kennedy High School Choir performs during the Class of 2020 virtual graduation. (Image: Cedar Rapids Community School District)
Special efforts were also needed to help seniors make the transition to college. “That was an acute operation for our high school counselors and advisers, down to each individual student, with lots of phone calls and Zoom and Google meetings, making sure that they got what they needed,” says Bush. 

Changing Expectations 

CRCSD’s IT staff spent the summer preparing thousands of new devices for students, and the instructional and administrative staff reviewed lessons learned during the spring. In July, the Iowa governor issued a new order allowing remote learning, but requiring all schools to deliver at least 50 percent in-person instruction, a surprise to schools that had planned to start the year in a remote environment. The district fine-tuned its Return to Learn plan based on feedback from parents and its Board of Education and offered a choice of remote or in-person learning for preschool through eighth grade. 

For high school students, CRCSD settled on a hybrid model, with students coming in person one week and working online the next, alternating with another cohort. “Our largest high school is 1,800 kids,” says Bush. “Having all 1,800 in one space at one time would be very challenging.”

High school families were also allowed to choose virtual instruction only, and during an August registration survey, 60 percent chose in-person learning and 40 percent remote. Teachers present curriculum in a classroom of socially-distanced students, delivering instruction on a screen that is also seen by those joining online.

In addition to making the adjustments necessary to include remote learners in the classroom, teachers at all levels reworked curriculum plans to help students catch up what they missed in the spring. Staff were given the choice of teaching remotely or in person. All who wanted to work from home were accommodated, and the district had to recruit additional remote teachers to meet student needs.
On Aug. 10, a derecho struck Cedar Rapids, damaging every one of its schools. (Photos: Cedar Rapids Community School District )

Derecho Damages Cedar Rapids Schools

The work Bush and her staff did during this period gave them what they needed to contain the confusion the pandemic had generated, but nature brought a disruption they had not anticipated. On Aug. 10, Cedar Rapids bore the brunt of a derecho, a rare thunderstorm event that brings a wall of high wind that can travel hundreds of miles in a relatively straight path, causing as much destruction as a tornado. 

Gusts as high as 140 miles per hour were recorded in Cedar Rapids. The city lost 65 percent of its tree canopy, and the storm damaged every one of CRCSD’s 31 schools. All of its high schools, and half of its middle schools, were too damaged to accomodate in-person learning without significant repairs.

The district’s 21 elementary schools were less affected. This, combined with the fact that demand for in-person instruction was highest among elementary-aged children and their families, made them a priority for repairs. Plans for students enrolled in middle and high schools made unsafe by the storm had to be reimagined, and strategies developed during the spring closure found new application.  

“The pandemic allowed us to be prepared for remote instruction, and then it became necessary because of the derecho,” says Bush.

The district invested in hot spots and distributed them to students. Several organizations in the community allowed groups of students to gather in their buildings for online study. Teachers who had chosen in-person instruction joined them in these hubs, and principals rotated to them as well. Packets of material were again supplied to students.

Building by building, the damaged schools were brought back online, with the last, a high school, welcoming students in January
Remote instruction kept students connected during spring school closures, and is still available for those who choose to study from home. (Photo: Cedar Rapids Community School District)

A 'Spooky' Disease 

As Bush led the district through the spring and into the fall, she was engaged in more than one elemental struggle. In April 2020, after weeks of working from 6 a.m. to midnight to redefine operations after orders to close her schools, she wasn’t feeling right. 

She contacted her doctor and told him about her symptoms. They weren’t signs of COVID-19, and he asked her to come in for an assessment. A CT scan showed a mass in her pelvis, and other tests showed cancer had spread to her liver.

“I’ll just say that cancer is spooky,” says Bush. “The diagnosis is not one that you want to hear.”

Within days, she had begun the first of six rounds of chemotherapy. She worked throughout them, holding calls and Zoom meetings even during the day-long infusions she received every three weeks.

All of her staff and colleagues were also remote and this unusual circumstance made it easier for her to stay in stride while working from home, supported by her husband and sons. “As a patient, it doesn’t get any better than to be surrounded by the people you love every day,” she says.

By the time CRCSD schools began to reopen, she was well enough to come to them in person, especially since the COVID-19 safety protocols the district had put in place helped protect her from other exposures that could challenge a weakened immune system. Her cancer appeared to be dormant in August, but the immune therapy intended to keep it at bay wasn’t fully successful, and she has begun another round of chemotherapy. 

True to her calling, she’s posed a steady stream of questions about the science of what she’s experiencing to her oncologist. “I feel like I learned nothing in my AP biology classes,” says the superintendent. “I actually understand what all this stuff is now — so yes, relevance matters.” 

Bus safety protocols for the district's return to in-person instruction. 

A Year of Learning

Gov. Reynolds continues to press for a return to 100 percent in-person instruction in Iowa, signing a bill in January that required all schools to give this option to all parents by mid-February, subject to waivers if a sufficient number of teachers at a school need to quarantine. Not all school leaders agree with this order, and one of Bush’s colleagues in Des Moines has been threatened with loss of his administrator’s license for continuing with remote learning.

Bush and her team have become acclimated to continuous changes in the decisions and information coming at them from external sources, whether the governor, the Public Health Department or their Board of Education. Filtering this input in a way that keeps the focus on serving kids and the community depends on close cooperation between staff, teachers and parents, she says, and these relationships have deepened.

Bush and her teachers continue to push forward, but she worries about the long-term impact of ruptures in the support systems that schools offer to young people. It’s one thing to help a first grader recover phonemic skills, but another to fill the hole left by time away from friends, teachers and familiar surroundings. On the other hand, she believes her students may have reserves of strength in their memories of a period when the “business” of life was suspended and families spent more time together and shared more meals than they would have otherwise. 

For now, she lives every day in problem-solving mode, finding ways to meet the needs of those who need and want support from her schools and teachers. 

“It's been a year of learning, that's for sure,” says Bush. “I’m humbled when I reflect that we did a whole lot of heavy lifting and incredible, amazing things for kids — then on the other side I think, ‘If I had to do that again, I might do something different.’”
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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