Valley High School students, staff, and families are getting used to new routines in the face of COVID-19—wearing face coverings, daily wellness check-ins, logging in to classes, and using lots of hand sanitizer. What makes all the routines worth it is the opportunity to be back in school and learning together, whether that is on-site or online.
To help keep students motivated and engaged during this unorthodox year, Valley Principal David Maxwell created one more ritual. Every day around 10 a.m., he updates a handmade sign marking Valley’s days in school.
“The idea is if we have a visual for the students to let them see that we’re still in school and each day we’re in school is one more day under the belt and to keep a running total, hoping that is a motivator,” Maxwell said. “(I’m) hoping that it makes them want to come to school to see how high the number can get because that’s the whole point.”
He follows a strict routine to update the sign each day. Step one is grabbing paper from his own printer and writing out the number. He uses the same marker every day and writes over each number five times. Like a lot of rituals, the steps developed naturally, but now they’re set in stone.
“The five times just happened,” Maxwell said, but now, “I don’t want to jinx it.”
Next, he walks to the days in school sign, which is outside the Valley office. His tradition of turning around to show the number to attendance secretary Kim Windergerst every day has earned him a new nickname—Vance, based on longtime “Wheel of Fortune” host Vanna White.
Valley attendance secretary Kim Windergerst celebrates another day in school.
“Vanna didn’t seem quite right,” Windergerst laughed. She celebrates the growing number of days in school with a little dance each morning.
After the dance, Maxwell turns and swaps out the number. Adding the days started as a motivator for students, but it’s also something that is keeping spirits high for staff and for Maxwell himself.
“I want to see just how high (the number) can get,” Maxwell said. “I want to stay in school as long as possible.”
COVID-19 has dramatically changed Diana Biles ever since the pandemic hit Iowa earlier this year. The mother of two West Des Moines Community Schools (WDMCS) students—a Valley High School senior and Indian Hills eighth grader—works as a cardiac catheterization lab nurse at a Des Moines hospital.
“It’s been running my life for a long time,” Biles explained. “I’ve worn a lot of masks, and I’ve dealt with a lot of COVID precautions.”
Back in mid-July, Biles had a conversation with one of her next-door neighbors: Samantha Beeman, Valley Southwoods Freshman High School’s band director. Biles’ daughter has participated in Marchmasters since her sophomore year when the family moved to WDMCS. Beeman and Biles talked about a recent national health and safety study geared toward the use of face masks and instrument covers while playing.
“Diana and I were just talking like neighbors do, and I didn’t know how we were going to do it and not many people were selling this stuff at the time,” Beeman said. “There were so many question marks, but Diana just jumped right in. It was so helpful.”
Watch: Valley Marchmasters Hype Video
Later that evening, Biles— a “hobbyist seamstress,” she quips—scoured the internet and YouTube for resources, tips, and tutorials, anything that led to helping make playing possible and safe for students. She sent Beeman a text message around midnight, committed to the feat, and purchased some fabric to get things rolling.
Soon after making her first face mask pattern, Biles understood how quickly this project could spiral out of control, realizing the need for extra hands and brainpower. She reached out to Cristina Deeds, another WDMCS parent whose students are also involved in Marchmasters.
“I don’t think either of us considered this was not an option. (Christina) and I have been working hand in hand in making this happen,” Biles said, noting that Deeds is a trained band director herself and teaches privately in the area. “She has very specific knowledge of these instruments and how they’re played. She’s designed patterns for 10-plus instrument covers.”
The pair enlisted the help of roughly 25 volunteers, dubbed the “Valley Mask BANDits,” consisting of fellow district parents, students, relatives, and friends who cut, sew, and distribute the materials. Often, individuals meet at Biles’ home and work in socially distant areas: kitchen, living room, hallway—you name it.
“They jumped right in the moment the fabric was in,” Beeman said. “We were pretty much masked and bagged about halfway through our summer band camp, and 2 1/2 weeks from when this whole thing started to having almost everyone from marching band covered. I couldn’t believe that. That was the pie-in-the-sky-idea that we would have everything ready by then.”
Photos: The ‘Valley Mask BANDits’ At Work
Biles, now determined to broaden the reach of this project to support all students grades 5-12 who are part of their school’s band program, approached the Valley Band Boosters at one of its recent meetings. She sought funding and asked the group to consider paying for additional supplies. The booster club was in full support.
“With the money allocated for this project, we’ve bought over 180 yards of fabric,” Biles said.
To date, the dedicated volunteers have made a combination of nearly 1,000 face masks and instrument covers—at no cost for students and their families. Once prepared for distribution, the materials are organized into kits.
“I had 120 face masks go out the door this weekend to be either cut or sewn and another 30 instrument covers go out too,” Biles said.
Last month, the Marchmasters played publicly for the first time since this spring during the Valley-Des Moines Roosevelt varsity football season opener (WDMCS is still exploring ways to hold indoor concerts for live audiences in a safe way.) There, students were stretched across the Valley Stadium turf and donned their face masks and instrument covers. For a brief moment, a sense of normalcy returned with the sweet and familiar sound of brass, percussion, and woodwind instruments filling the air.
“That first Friday night football game, they looked so nice,” Beeman said of the students. “That excitement when they got done, you could just tell how much it meant to them and how happy they were. We had kids crying when it was done because it just felt so good. And we were safe doing it.
“…They’re here because they love the end result. They love performing for people. This is why they love doing what they do.”
Photos: Marchmasters Perform at Valley-Roosevelt Football Game
The expression on her daughter’s face, as well as on the dozens of other students part of Marchmasters, following their performance was monumental for Biles. It’s exactly what she and the rest of the volunteers needed to keep moving forward and to take this project to the finish line.
Because in the end: It is just one of the many instances that has brought WDMCS together during the 2020-21 school year so far.
“It has taken a village, and the kids have been incredibly grateful and gracious. They didn’t see this path. They thought it was too hard for them,” Biles said. “With COVID, nothing in life is 100%, and this project has helped us take back a tiny bit of control—to give and protect something for our kids. To give my daughter something when she’s already lost so much… it has been wonderful.
“It’s not perfect—there are no perfect solutions—but it has allowed us to make it safe enough for the students to enjoy playing again.”
And come homecoming on Friday, Sept. 25, as well as future Valley varsity football home games, the Marchmasters will be there too. Waiting and ready to showcase their talents…
…from a safe distance.
Do You Want to Volunteer?
If you’re inspired by this story and want to support this project, volunteers are always welcome. Biles said the project is now shifting toward supplying for band students at the junior high and elementary levels.
West Des Moines Community Schools is proud to announce that 18 Valley High School students have been named 2021 National Merit Scholarship semifinalists. Congratulations to seniors Veda Amalkar, Quinn Clair, Isabella Dobrinov, Cale Elmore, Elaine Greer, Vidya Iyer, Levi Janssen, Parker Johnson, Dorothy Junginger, Noah Mack, Clara Mintzer, Sarah Norwood, Risha Shetye, Jim Su, Devin Thomas, Justin Toth, Lucy Weis, and Jalyn Wu. The students will now be considered for National Merit Scholarship finalist standing.
The National Merit Scholarship Corporation announced the names of approximately 16,000 Semifinalists in the 66th Annual National Merit Scholarship Program on Sept. 9. These academically talented high school seniors have an opportunity to continue in the competition for some 7,600 National Merit Scholarships worth more than $31 million that will be offered next spring. To be considered for a Merit Scholarship award, Semifinalists must fulfill several requirements to advance to the Finalist level of the competition. Over 90 percent of the Semifinalists are expected to attain Finalist standing, and about half of the Finalists will win a National Merit Scholarship, earning the Merit Scholar title. National Merit Scholarship winners of 2021 will be announced beginning in April and concluding in July.
These scholarship recipients may join the more than 90 National Merit Scholarship finalists who have attended Valley High School in the past 10 years.
There will be no school on Friday, Sept. 4, due to a districtwide professional development day for WDMCS staff. Additionally, there will be no school on Monday, Sept. 7, in observance of Labor Day. On-site and online classes will resume on Tuesday, Sept. 8.