CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Students at the new West Willow Elementary will start school Monday, Aug. 23, without a cafeteria, gymnasium or even a playground.
The school, which replaced the former Coolidge Elementary School, 6225 First Ave. NW, is the first in a series of new buildings the Cedar Rapids Community School District has planned.
Without any vote by district residents as would typically be required in such a large-scale project, School Board members voted in 2018 to close eight elementary schools, build 10 new “mega” schools that would each house 600 students and keep three newer schools.
Previously estimated at $20 million each, the board was told in 2019 that amount had increased to $25 million each, just for the first two schools, but district officials did not answer questions regarding the delay, including an updated total cost.
Principal Greg O’Connell noted that while under construction, West Willow sustained significant damage in the August 2020 derecho, with the entire west pod walls knocked out by the windstorm.
The district also attributed delays to the pandemic, but did not say how it affected the construction schedule.
An email to parents on Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, noted that the school will open Aug. 23 with limited access to portions of the building.
“Our hearts and arms will be open, but certain sections of the school will be closed for 3-4 additional weeks,” the email stated. “All PK-5th grade classrooms will be open.”
According to the message to parents, rather than going outside for recess on a playground, students will be taking walks on sidewalks and using “collaboration spaces” inside the school for recess.
Most sidewalks around the school were closed for construction as of Aug. 19.
“Even though the cafeteria will not be accessible for a few weeks, we still will be serving healthy breakfast and lunch,” the note stated. “We have created a staging room to prepare meals and students will be served in individual classrooms.”
The daycare room will temporarily be located in one of the classroom pods, the message added.
Monday, Aug. 16, was the last day parents could choose an online option for their students due to the pandemic, with a noon deadline.
The timing of a previous email to parents, shortly after the noon cutoff Aug. 16, did not sit well with at least one West Willow mom.
“I want to get enough time to make an informed decision,” said Danielle Wigg, who has children entering preschool, first and fourth grades. That didn’t happen, she added.
Wigg also noted that students were being thrust into a new setting without an open house or back-to-school night to meet teachers.
Smaller class sizes that were touted under the district’s plan for new schools also appear to have been empty promises, she said, with 27 to 28 students in some of the classrooms, which could be challenging for teachers.
Wigg said she is disappointed the school is behind schedule, given that the plan has been in the works for several years.
“Kids will be going to school in a construction zone,” she said. “And they’ll be confined to their classrooms all day long.”