Jewell, Iowa – At 3:20 p.m. on a Monday, a voice booms through the public address speakers at South Hamilton School.

“Everybody mask up.” A reminder of how much changed this school year.

The South Hamilton district — 700 pre-K through 12th-grade students from the rural towns of Ellsworth, Randall, Stanhope and Jewell in the center of Iowa — tackled challenges facing other rural schools since COVID-19 came to Iowa in March and shut down schools. 

“You can’t handle the ‘what ifs,’ because there are too many of them,” said longtime activities director Todd Coy.

This piece is part of a collaborative reporting project that includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, Charlottesville Tomorrow, El Paso Matters, IowaWatch, The Nevada Independent, New Mexico in Depth, Underscore News/Pamplin Media Group and Wisconsin Watch/The Badger Project. The collaboration was made possible by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.

Statewide, the coronavirus positivity rates have fluctuated. As of Jan. 3, 284,380 Iowans tested positive for the virus, according to the state coronavirus website. A total of 3,946 people died as a result of COVID-19, according to the state. Nationally, 351,426 Americans have died of the virus as of Jan. 3, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

In South Hamilton, students feel the effects. Some are slipping, school officials said.

Student academic progress took a big hit during the spring, Superintendent Ken Howard said. The fall semester began with teachers going over material that would have been covered last year.

“The goal,” said Howard, who’s served as superintendent at South Hamilton for seven years, “is to get kids to where they should be by the end of the school year.”

Some students have adapted well to online learning or classrooms that have spread out chairs, but others have not, the district’s principals said.

Ken Howard, South Hamilton’s superintendent, has pulled together staff and about 700 students to design safe outcomes for the 2020-21 school year. Photo by John Naughton

“Some kids are getting it great, others are slipping behind,” elementary Principal Steve Neuberger said.

Several students transitioned from onsite to remote learning, due to health concerns.

The full picture on academics won’t be clear until later, but there are signs statewide of a decline in literacy in kindergarten-third grade, according to the Iowa Department of Education. Schools were able to screen most students for literacy, Heather Doe, the department’s spokesperson. The biggest decline overall was in first grade.

The virus brought financial changes. An estimated $100,000 in state funding, for instance, left South Hamilton when 17 students decided to home school. The district gained about $50,000 in federal funding through the federal CARES Act for school PPE and other safety equipment.

South Hamilton school, shown Nov. 16, 2020, in Jewell, Iowa, sits near the geographic center of the state. It is among rural schools across the country tackling challenges amid COVID-19. Photo by John Naughton

At South Hamilton, classes resumed in person Aug. 24.

The district weathered a September outbreak that sickened 117 kids who tested positive or were exposed to someone who did, according to school officials. The school shifted to a hybrid learning plan until the numbers dropped the following week. About half of the students were from the elementary building and half from the middle/high school. 

On Dec. 22, the last date data was available on the district’s website, one of the 700 students was quarantined. On Jan. 3, the Hamilton County positivity rate over the past 14 days is 17.6 percent, meaning that less than a fifth of residents tested had the virus, according to the state’s coronavirus website.

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Shelby Fonken, the school nurse since August, sees this lost year roll by day after day due to absences.

“Some days could be zero, but other days 20,” Fonken said. “I feel bad for these kiddos. When they’re (COVID-19) positive, they’re missing out.”

Sophomore Kate Barkema and her parents, Jodi and Dennis,  know how awful COVID-19 can be.

Kate, a South Hamilton sophomore, tested positive in mid-September and was isolated in her bedroom for 14 days. Her parents came down with the virus in late October.

The Barkema family of Jewell, Iowa — from right to left, dad Dennis, mom Jodi and South Hamilton sophomore Kate — all had the coronavirus in the fall of 2020. Submitted photo

On Sept. 14, Kate woke up with a high fever and other symptoms that were similar to mononucleosis, said Jodi, a health care worker. A rapid test showed she was positive. 

Kate, who played softball and volleyball, lost 6 pounds over the next week. She still hasn’t regained her full sense of taste. She attended school online during her quarantine. She missed the school’s homecoming when she was ill, too.

Mid-September recorded a spike, 17 percent of students, in the school’s rate of COVID-related absences. 

“Nobody wants to get it,” Kate said.

Her volleyball team had to quarantine, too. But the Hawks were able to return to play and finished the season. They made up the two matches they missed in September.

When Kate returned to school, curious students questioned her. 

“Right when I came back, I was one of the first people who’d had it,” Kate said.

Both Jodi and Dennis are essential workers and are careful.

Jodi, who works eight hours a day in PPE, woke up Oct. 27 with a high fever, body aches and an inability to taste.

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Dennis works at 3M in Ames and is surrounded by protective plastic and Plexiglas. He takes care of his 76-year-old mother, Judy, in Jewell, and knew he had to be tested, too.

“I thought I better go, too,” Dennis said. “I definitely didn’t want my mom to get it.”

He also tested positive, but was asymptomatic.

The family said they believe South Hamilton has done a good job protecting students.

“They’re doing the best they can, with the knowledge that they’ve had,” Jodi said. “I feel very safe that she’s there.”

The Jewell couple participated in a clinical trial for remdesivir, a drug that is being considered as a treatment for COVID-19.

They used their condition to become part of medical history, Jodi said.

A banner bears the names of all members of the Class of 2021 on a hallway in South Hamilton, a district of 700 K-12 students in the heart of Iowa. Photo by John Naughton

Across Iowa, other rural schools tackle these what-ifs.

North Polk High School in Alleman, a school of about 500 students north of Des Moines, installed plastic dividers resembling revolving doors at its cafeteria tables. 

Student activities, from band and choir concerts to athletic events, are being livestreamed with greater frequency.

Some smaller Iowa districts are using their size to their advantage for social distancing. Ar-We-Va of Westside has about 65 high school students.

“With our small class sizes, we’ve been able to mitigate easier than some larger schools,” Ar-We-Va Superintendent Jeff Kruse said.

Eighth-grader Jagger Ferrie (left), seated in the gym with his mother Lindsey, are making the best of new state rules regarding attendance at athletic events. Photo by John Naughton

Another South Hamilton student, eighth-grader Jagger Ferrie, wants his life back.

He dream about earning a black belt in karate. He’s been a brown belt since spring, but hasn’t returned to group practice since then.

His dojo in Story City shut down due to COVID concerns, other than a month this summer. It recently opened its doors. Jagger missed eight weeks of practice, and he’s stayed away since it reopened, according to his mother, Lindsey.

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Jagger has followed the rise and fall of students and teachers who have become sick or exposed. South Hamilton publishes the number of staff and kids out daily.

The virus is serious to Jagger. He wears his mask and uses the sanitizer stations throughout the school. But not all students follow the rules, he said.

“There’s always that one kid that doesn’t want to mask properly and sterilize his or her mask,” Ferrie said.

For now, he waits to return to his pursuit of the black belt. Lindsey said he aims to test for it in the summer of 2021.

“It’s been a roller coaster here,” Jagger said.

John Naughton is a longtime Iowa journalist, covering high school sports for the Des Moines Register for several decades before launching a freelance career.


This is the third and last in a series of stories in which IowaWatch focused on rural schools and issues they face during a global pandemic. For a look at how other states and schools are faring, see Lesson Plans: Rural schools grapple with COVID-19.

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