Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Schools close and staff gear up for distance learning

David Colburn
Posted 3/19/20

REGIONAL- It was supposed to be a busy, exciting time for students this week and next at North Woods School - baseball and softball teams starting practice, the robotics team heading to Milwaukee, …

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Schools close and staff gear up for distance learning

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REGIONAL- It was supposed to be a busy, exciting time for students this week and next at North Woods School - baseball and softball teams starting practice, the robotics team heading to Milwaukee, rehearsals and performances for Prairie Fire Children’s Theater, parent-teacher conferences, ACT testing, several other student trips, and the possibility of the boys basketball team competing in the state tournament.
Instead, as of Wednesday, all activities were canceled, most of the students were gone, and most of the building was empty and quiet. Teachers and staff were busy preparing for an uncertain future, not knowing when they would see students in their classes again.
The scene was the same in schools across the area and statewide as districts shuttered their doors to students and instruction for eight days at the direction of Gov. Tim Walz as part of the state’s evolving response to combat the spread of the coronavirusthat causes COVID-19.
While instruction is scheduled to resume March 30, teachers and staff are spending this time developing distance learning options for students to continue their education at home if the closure is extended.
ISD 2142 Superintendent Reggie Engebritson, who oversees North Woods School and Tower-Soudan Elementary School, said her staff members are feeling challenged.
“This is all new to us,” she said. “I have tried to give them as much information as possible and will continue to have conference calls and be here to support them as we create our distance learning plan.”
Staff also are emotional about the students being gone, particularly given the possibility the closure could be extended.
“There is sadness, as they might not have students back again this school year,” Engebritson said, “and our seniors are missing out on all the ‘last’ things that happen senior year.”
North Woods Principal John Vukmanich had one central message for his teachers.
“The most important thing we do during this time is to keep the relationships we have with our kids and to help them through this,” he said. “We want to reassure families that we will help you out, too. Students may have mixed emotions right now, and they need the adults in their lives to reassure them that things will get back to normal in time.”
For now, things are anything but normal, as a flurry of communications between parents and schools has been aimed at nailing down demand for the most immediate needs – meal service and school-based childcare for children whose parents are healthcare or emergency workers, both items specified in Walz’s directive.
As of Tuesday, Engebritson said plans were coming together even as they still were contacting families to get a handle on need.
Food service staff will package breakfast and lunch together in bags. For parents who can’t come to a school to pick up the meals, the district will engage its transportation department for a solution.
“We are coordinating several drop off sites for families,” Engebritson said.
Vukmanich said the school was also looking at the possibility of having paraprofessionals support meal distribution efforts.
The district will also be transporting students who need to get to a school for childcare. The service is for students, age 12 and under, of healthcare and emergency services workers.
“We have childcare set up at each of the schools,” Engebritson said. “They will have access to the gym and a variety of activities, plus breakfast and lunch.”
The biggest challenge during the eight-day closure is for teachers and staff to come up with a plan to provide distance education and at-home learning for students. Everything has to be ready to go by March 30, the date instruction is supposed to resume.
“This will use a combination of traditional materials and technology,” Vukmanich said.
Teachers aren’t starting from scratch, but Engebritson said there were numerous challenges that have to be met.
“We have some online instruction happening either through Schoology or Google Hangouts,” she said. “We have many students who do not have access to the internet, so we need to be mindful of them and figure out ways to provide an education for all students. Distance learning will give all teachers an opportunity to learn more about technology and how to provide instruction in a variety of ways.”
Vermilion Country School
Director Frank Zobitz and his staff at Vermilion Country School caught a couple of small breaks in the short term, as the 7-12 charter school with 31 students is on spring break this week. The school won’t have to start providing meals until next week, and the students are old enough that they don’t have to provide childcare.
Like everyone else, Zobitz said they’re diving into how they’re going to provide education to students if they can’t return to school on March 30.
“Our approach will be twofold,” Zobitz said. “First, what do we need to do in the short term? Chances are it’s going to be packet-based – here’s a packet of information, here are some worksheets, just getting them to be doing something again. If this is a longer-term thing, then what might we need to change, what might we need to do differently?”
Students have school-issued computers, although they haven’t often gone home with the students. Zobitz said he would be assessing who has internet access, noting that the quality of connections can vary widely depending on the locationand provider.
However, the school’s size relative to others in the area gives Zobitz and his staff some advantage in adapting to new paradigms.
“We don’t have a lot of students; we’re only dealing with 31,” he said. “Compared to some of these districts with Kindergarten through twelfth and 300 students, this is where small size can be an asset. The logistics don’t keep compounding on you.”
One challenge unique to Vermilion Country School, should the closure be extended, is what to do about the senior meals they provide at lunchtime.
“We do have a nice contingent of seniors who come to us,” Zobitz said. “We need to figure out what our strategy is going to be around that and how we can continue to be an asset to the community by providing meals for seniors.”

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