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Area schools optimistic and ready for distance learning

So what does distance learning look like? For schools there are many options and, luckily, many school districts have invested in technology and are able to provide devices to all of their students.

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Tower-Soudan Elementary School first grade teacher Jo Holen connects with a student over a video chat this week. (Photo courtesy of Kristi Berlin)

After Gov. Tim Walz ordered a statewide closure, Minnesota public schools have had eight days for teachers and staff to prepare and plan for distance learning.

On Wednesday, the Minnesota Department of Education announced distance learning would begin Monday, through May 4. School districts around St. Louis County feel prepared for distance learning to start and are optimistic about it.

“The one thing that I've learned about this governor and this (Minnesota Department of Education) commissioner (Mary Cathryn Ricker) is that they are intentional about giving us time to prepare,” Hermantown Community Schools Superintendent Kerry Juntunen said.

So what does distance learning look like? Schools have many options and, luckily, many districts have invested in technology and can provide devices to all students. Harbor City International School could not only provide devices for all students, Dean of Students Dawn Buck said, but the school was able to afford hot spots for the six families who didn’t have internet access at home.

“That’s one of the benefits of a small school,” she said.

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In Hermantown, Juntunen said the district is utilizing online resources such as Google Classroom and Seesaw, a learning management system, and gave out as many devices as possible to students without one at home.

All Proctor Public Schools students got a device to take home to also use Google Classroom, and Canvas, another learning management system.

“We do have a one-to-one deployment of devices and have for many years,” said Proctor superintendent John Engelking. “We have the infrastructure and the equipment and we’re ready to be there for our families and our kids.”

For St. Louis County Schools and Mountain Iron-Buhl Public Schools, every student in both school districts received either an iPad or a laptop to do classwork online.

“We're building the plane while we fly it, but our teachers feel very comfortable moving forward on Monday,” said Kristi Berlin, director of teacher and learning for both St. Louis County Schools and Mountain Iron-Buhl Public Schools.

Students without a device or internet access

All these school districts are also preparing to help out students who don’t have internet at home. Berlin said her two districts cover about 4,500 square miles, much of it very rural. St. Louis County Schools encompasses Northeast Range School in Babbitt, Cherry School, North Woods School near Cook, South Ridge School in Culver and Tower-Soudan Elementary School.

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Berlin said districts have devised creative and innovative ways of getting materials to students, especially those who don’t have internet access.

“Not only are we going to deliver written packets on a weekly basis, with some students we are sending home flash drives with videos on them so if they don’t have internet access they can still connect with their teachers and watch a video on their provided device,” Berlin said.

Hermantown, Proctor and Duluth Edison Charter Schools are also planning to deliver written materials to students without access to the internet or a device.

Gina Cole, director of curriculum and learning in Proctor, said right now teachers were asked to plan 10 days of material at a time.

“We have bus drivers and paraprofessionals and teachers who are volunteering to deliver those packets out to students,” she said.

Duluth Edison Head of Schools Bonnie Jorgenson said they are planning on delivering written materials on a weekly basis to those students who may need it.

As for Hermantown, Juntunen said they are still working out the details, but he said they are looking at a Monday and Wednesday delivery and pick up of written materials for students.

“The equity piece is a really important piece for us and we are trying to make sure we are honoring everybody's individual situations,” Juntunen said.

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St. Louis County Schools and Mountain Iron-Buhl are taking equity a step further than most districts. Berlin said both districts have changed grading to a pass/in progress/no pass system.

“We are evening the playing field for all of our students, no matter what socioeconomic or area they live in, so we are really just working on getting students to the finish line, no matter how they'll be learning,” she said. “We recognize that education is going to look different at every grade level in every subject area and for every family based on what that family has.”

Staying connected

Everyone from these districts emphasized the need to stay connected to students and keep relationships teachers have created with each one.

“Our goal is to help students with learning, but I think first and foremost is keeping those relationships and keeping that one-on-one connection with all our students,” Cole said. “We miss our kids and we want to make sure we are connecting with them on a daily basis so they know that we still love them and care about them and we want them to succeed.”

Teachers in each of the school districts are setting up office hours when students or even parents can reach out to them to get help.

“It’s been incredible to see the amount of love and work teachers put into helping our students be successful,” said Sarah Klyne, the student success coordinator in Proctor. “Not having students in the classrooms is tough for our teachers, but they are really making the best of this situation to help support them and make them feel like the teachers are taking the time to invest in them, just in a different way.”

Mark Hughes, principal of Pike Lake Elementary in the Proctor school district, said the current situation is really pushing teachers to be creative about the way they present instruction and connect to their students.

“I had one first grade teacher do something called bedtime stories where the teacher recorded themselves reading stories and then posted it to a YouTube page, which is then shared out with families,” Hughes said. “So there have been some really innovative ways of teachers connecting with families and making sure that they are seeing their teachers and just kind of pushing the envelope and staying excited about the ways that we are able to make this experience as beneficial to students as possible.”

Everyone agreed their teachers have really been stepping up, being creative and innovative during these troubling times.

“We wouldn't be where we are today without our teachers,” Cole said.

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North Wood Schools high school teacher Carrie Carstens works on typing up a Spanish worksheet this week in preparation of distance learning beginning Monday, March 30. (Photo courtesy of Kristi Berlin)

Related Topics: EDUCATION
Adelle Whitefoot is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune.
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