TOWER- School is different this year, and for students at Tower-Soudan Elementary, that difference starts right on the school bus. Masks, staggered seating, and sanitizer squirts on both hands before …
TOWER- School is different this year, and for students at Tower-Soudan Elementary, that difference starts right on the school bus. Masks, staggered seating, and sanitizer squirts on both hands before leaving the bus. In the lunchroom, students can sit only four to a table that easily seats three times as many. Masks do come off while eating, but are back on once done and ready to return to the classroom.
Classrooms look a bit sparer, but still are just as welcoming as in previous years. It takes an extra moment to recognize students, many of whom have sprouted up inches and inches since last in the building in March.
Teaching plans now include plenty of time outdoors, when both students and teachers can take off their masks. Teachers are asking that students always come prepared to spend time outdoors. Some teachers added camping chairs to their back-to-school supply list.
“You are going to find my class outdoors on the tennis court as often as possible,” said second-grade teacher Charissa Dahl, who seemed more bothered by wearing a mask than her young students did.
First-grade teacher Jo Holen was figuring out ways to weave her tried-and-true teaching techniques into a COVID-19 classroom. Many of her hands-on lessons will need to be adjusted, but she was certain that both she and her students would find fun ways to learn all year long.
Teachers all had ideas about how to make wearing a mask easier for students, and at least on day one, students seemed excited enough to be back at school to not mind all the new rules.
Fifth- and sixth-graders started out their day learning the nuts and bolts of their iPads, emails, and online learning software. That way, in case the school needs to move to distance learning, students would have as seamless a transition as possible. Teacher Scott Chiabotti was clearly visible sitting at his desk, but was also popping up on their screens, welcoming them to class.
Families all have the option of choosing in-person or distance learning. Some classrooms appeared rather empty, with as many as half the families choosing to school at home, but other classrooms were full of desks spaced at least six feet apart.
Kindergarten teacher Kristine Sogenfrei is new to Tower-Soudan and was busy meeting parents and her new students prior to the first official day of Kindergarten on Sept. 10. Sogenfrei taught in Bemidji the last six years and is excited to have the opportunity to teach in another small school close to her family members, who live in Cook and Virginia. She is finishing up her master’s degree in math education this month and is excited to put all the new teaching techniques she has learned into practice. She is also excited to explore all the new bike trails, mountain bike trails, and cross-country ski trails in the area, spending a lot of her free time outdoors.
Brandi Richards-Berger is a new special education teacher who will be teaching in a self-contained classroom for Kindergarten and first-grade students from throughout the district who need a higher level of support. She started her teaching career as a substitute teacher in Ely, Babbitt, and Tower, then taught for 13 years at the Nay Ah Sing School on the Mille Lacs Reservation. She has also taught in Onamia and St. Cloud. This will be her eighth year teaching in a self-contained elementary special education classroom.
While she is a native of Ely, she is now living in Britt. She has four children, ranging in age from 14 to 28, and one granddaughter.
When not in the classroom Richards-Berger enjoys gardening, performing in plays, going to concerts, and spending time at the lake. She also creates wedding flower arrangements and officiates at weddings.
“I am excited to be working at Tower-Soudan,” she said. “It is a great little school, and the staff really seem to work together very well.” Another bonus, she said, is the chance to be back living “up north.”