REGIONAL - Gov. Tim Walz made official last week what many Minnesota parents and students predicted as inevitable. All schools will remain closed for the rest of the 2019-2020 school year due to …
REGIONAL - Gov. Tim Walz made official last week what many Minnesota parents and students predicted as inevitable. All schools will remain closed for the rest of the 2019-2020 school year due to continuing caution over the coronavirus pandemic.
Distance learning, initiated in late March, will remain in place.
Walz did not dismiss the possibility that campuses could remain closed when the 2020-2021 school year begins after Labor Day.
“The answer is, I don’t know yet on this fall,” he said during a press conference.
Gov. Walz also explained that while distance learning continues, the state will pursue opportunities to expand technology for students, provide guidance for educators on how to best connect with students, and support families.
“As a former teacher, this is a heartbreaking decision,” Walz said. “I am sorry for all of our students who will miss out on graduations, tournaments, and end of year celebrations. While I recognize distance learning is a challenge for many families, it is critical to social distancing in Minnesota and supports the health of Minnesota’s families. We will continue looking for ways to improve the current system and better support our children.”
Within minutes of Walz’s announcement, the Minnesota State High School League canceled all spring activities and sports for the remainder of the school year.
Schools around the North Country immediately began planning how the current school year will be closed out.
Ely School District
In Ely, school officials met last Friday to implement an end-of-school-year plan that has been in the works for weeks. Details were revealed during a special school board meeting Monday night.
Superintendent Erik Erie told board members, “When we found out that distance learning was extended to the end of the school year, it was a sad time for many of us, but also, we have seen some great things from our teachers and staff in pulling together.”
K-5 Principal Anne Oelke said all parents were notified last week of the distance learning continuation procedures.
“Our teachers have been planning for this already,” she said. “We don’t want any delay in the learning plans for our students. We are ready to go. The parents are ready.”
Another learning materials pickup opportunity was scheduled for Thursday and Friday of this week. Oelke also said that teachers will be collecting completed schoolwork from parents this week.
“We know that students and parents have been working really hard and we want our teachers to be able to look at that completed work,” Oelke said.
Daily interaction continues with all elementary school students. Some teachers have expanded student contacts with Zoom meetings, according to Oelke. “Some of our fifth-graders are also hanging out together online,” she said.
Another material collection will be scheduled toward the end of May. Student locker clean-out opportunities will also be provided.
Megan Anderson, 6-12 principal, said that distance learning for the rest of the school year will mirror what has been implemented since mid-March.
“We are collecting work from our students, more Internet-based than the younger kids, and we will continue that through the end of the year,” she said.
Any commencement ceremonies for the Class of 2020 this spring will be unprecedented in scope and appearance, and Anderson said she is waiting for additional guidance from Gov. Walz on what a graduation ceremony might look like.
“My hope is that we will still be able to honor our May 30 graduation date, and it will likely not be all of us in the auditorium, but rather an outdoor event where we have room for social distancing,” Anderson said.
The senior awards day set for Wednesday, May 6 will be presented in a virtual setting. Details will be announced next week, she said.
Vermilion Country School in Tower
The news that distance learning was going to continue through the end of the school year was not a surprise to the staff at Vermilion Country School in Tower. For the students, on the other hand, the news was not what most of them were hoping to hear.
Science teacher Paula Herbranson had most of her health class students checked in for a Google Meet online class on April 24, but a couple with poor internet service at their homes kept bumping in and out of the video chat.
Herbranson said that online attendance has varied from very good to poor.
“My middle school and grade 12 students are doing the best,” she said.
Students logged into health class had a range of views of the stay-at-home learning.
“I thoroughly enjoy this,” said Alyssa Pratt, who admitted she was attending class in her pajamas.
Todd Zibrowski said he really misses the structure of a school day but likes the freedom of learning at home.
Caleb Ramponi expressed frustration with rural internet problems. Meeting the van to pick up his schoolwork sometimes conflicted with his online schedule, causing him to miss an online class, he said. Herbranson told him the school was working on the issue.
Danny Anderson simply said he hated the online format.
“We all wish you were here,” said Herbranson.
VCS classes are meeting at their regular times. Teachers are scheduling Google Meet online sessions multiple days per week. Students check in daily with one of the staff paraprofessionals, in addition to contact with their teachers during scheduled class times.
The school is dropping off and picking up assignments Mondays and Thursdays, along with breakfast and lunch items, and the United Way backpack food program, if requested.
Herbranson, who also teaches health and physical education, said that health class at the moment has focused on learning about the pandemic, as well as learning how to spot misinformation on the topic online. One of the assignments this week was to find examples of articles and memes on social media regarding COVID-19 that were misinformation.
Language arts and music teacher Karin Schmidt was having her choir students work on pieces at home, which they could record and share through the “flipgrid” program.
“Some of the students are too shy,” she said, “but we are working on that.”
Schmidt had shifted her language arts readings and assignments to the Google Classroom last quarter, so the switch was not as big of a leap for her students.
The focus in language arts this quarter is on non-fiction essays and poetry. She is recording some of the school staff reading the assigned poetry to make it more interesting.
Schmidt said she is working with students to make their online presence more professional, including writing online messages with proper spelling, grammar, and capitalizations.
“These online communications are all recorded for life,” she said.
She is saving daily student check-in responses to show students how their online presence has changed from the beginning to the end of the quarter.
Work on the school yearbook is nearly at an end. One student has been working on the yearbook with Schmidt from home as yearbook staff is adding pages showing how school changed starting in March, with students sending in photos showing them doing school at home.
Plans for graduation are pending, with hopes that some sort of scaled-down in-person graduation ceremony will be permitted, but if not, plans are being made for a virtual ceremony.
“We miss working with our students in school,” school administrator Frank Zobitz said. “But the reality is, this is what we have to work with right now.”
Zobitz urged any students or parents who need assistance with homework, mental health concerns, supplies, or food to contact the school.
North Woods School
To say that the teachers and staff at North Woods school are missing their students would be an understatement.
“They’re craving human contact,” Principal John Vukmanich said. “Now that we know we’re going to be in it for the duration they’re starting to think more long term. I’ve gotten a sense from some that the reality is now hitting them.”
Teacher Tifany Briggs said it was better having the distance learning question settled, but that it was unfortunate for the kids that they are missing out on all of the fun group building things that happen at this time of year.
Briggs has been participating with three other teachers in an experimental team where they work with combined classes of fifth and sixth graders. Briggs does math for fifth and sixth grade and also oversees a sixth-grade homeroom.
Having well-established relationships with students has eased the transition to distance education, Briggs said, and the arrangement has proven to be beneficial for some students.
“For some of our kids that are the more quiet and reserved kids, it’s a better platform for them because they feel more comfortable,” she said.
A downside is not being able to see the students while they’re learning.
“There are those kids I’d be reteaching, sitting in the classroom with them giving them more time,” Briggs said. “Now you can’t see their little nuances to know if they’re absorbing it.”
Vukmanich said that the high school staff has been doing as much as possible to support seniors as they finish up their required coursework and move toward graduation.
“Our goal has always been to get our kids to the destination of graduation, and we are going to do whatever it takes to get them there, because this was not their fault nor our choice,” Vukmanich said.
Teachers have developed flexible timelines and alternate assignments to accommodate individual student needs while maintaining basic academic standards, Vukmanich said.
“If a student is falling behind or not in touch with us, we are going to call and email. We’re going to ask them how they are doing and where they need help. If a senior tells me that they are overwhelmed, we will adjust. Students are going to need this flexibility,” Vukmanich said. “The connection is more important than the content right now. I am trying to keep in mind how I would feel as a senior if I were in this same situation, and I think our teachers are too.”