by ALEXANDRA RETTER
As the number of COVID-19 cases has soared and local school districts have shifted to distance learning, Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) teachers and staff are trying to maintain consistent daily school schedules and academic standards, as well as engagement with students and families.
School Board member Karl Sonneman said at the board’s November 19 meeting that every Winona County resident should follow COVID-related health protocols to help lower case rates and allow for students to return to some form of in-person learning. “And this is a particularly acute time to look at this, because we are coming on the holidays, and we’ve got to … not press the limits on this,” Sonneman noted. “I look at all the things we’ve been doing, want to do, and [our desire] to get back to normalcy, but what this has done is spike the virus and led to where we are today with schools. So to get kids back in school, we have to pay attention. It’s up to us, the adults, to respond to that.”
The most recent official 14-day case rate from the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), 114.46, is almost twice the rate that preceded it.
According to the most recent 14-day case rates from MDH, there were 83 counties in the state that had a 14-day case rate of over 50, the mark at which MDH recommends schools implement distance learning for all students.
“So I just want to highlight that, because it is highlighting the severity of where we’re sitting right now as a state and how our county compares to other counties in the state,” Superintendent Annette Freiheit said.
District staff members are applying what they learned about distance learning last spring and this fall as they refine how they serve students now.
District staff members are placing emphasis on fostering connections between students, families and colleagues, as well. Every Wednesday, each student at the Winona Area Learning Center (ALC) gets a phone call from a teacher who checks in on their academic progress and how they are doing overall. Elementary students have a virtual meeting with their teacher and classmates in the morning and afternoon.
“I think the biggest thing is just as a school staff, we know that this truly is hard on many of our families, and we don’t take that lightly,” Goodview Elementary School and ALC Principal Emily Cassellius said in an interview. “We don’t want to add to the stress or chaos that this pandemic is causing to so many people, and we really are here as a support system. We are here to help. I’d encourage families to reach out if there are needs we can help with.”
Britta Browne, a third grade teacher at Goodview, is focusing on keeping students invested in their learning.
“One of the big things, especially in distance learning, is you have to get your students to want to show up, because if they don’t want to show up, the chances of them coming to meetings or lessons isn’t great,” Browne shared.
Browne and her colleagues have dressed up for lessons they have filmed for their students. She wore a detective costume in a video about context clues on one occasion.
“You just have to do … the extra things that are going to get them engaged, because then they’ll want to show up,” Browne stated.
ALC social studies teacher Brooke Auer Lee has enjoyed seeing her students and their pets during distance learning. She noted that she has had a chance to virtually meet many of her students’ cats.
“We kind of get to meld school and home into one,” Auer Lee said. “We get to have this personal connection, which I think is fun.”
She said she is glad students have continued coming to class while in distance learning, and they have shown resiliency.
“They are willing to be flexible and change and stick with us, which, honestly, I can’t explain how grateful I am that students have stuck with us, because I know this is a really difficult time,” Auer Lee stated.
Having fostered connections with students in-person during hybrid learning, it is easier now to maintain those ties than it was to create them during the distance learning period for secondary students at the beginning of the school year, Auer Lee shared.
Winona Middle School instructional coach Ross Freeman-Herdina said that as teachers have built up some experience with distance learning, they have gained insight into students’ experiences with distance learning and how to make the learning model center on students.
“This is a huge mind shift, teaching online from traditional teaching,” Freeman-Herdina shared.
“Teachers are now at the point where we’re having conversations about, ‘What does good online teaching look like?’”
They are discussing how to help students feel comfortable and accountable during distance learning, in addition to how to inspire them to engage and collaborate, he noted.
Across all grade levels, more information about how to receive technical support and meals was added to schools’ distance learning plans. Details about the district potentially being able to provide some in-person instruction for students in the special education program once case rates have declined significantly were also added to learning plans for every grade level.
More time for meeting teachers’ and students’ needs has been built into daily school schedules. Teachers had raised concerns about the amount of time they had to plan their instruction, and the district responded by adjusting schedules.
Teachers at the elementary and middle school levels have additional planning time, as allowed by Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) guidance, and high school students can take advantage of extra office hours being offered by their teachers.
While some changes have been made to schedules, keeping the set-up of a typical school day as similar as possible to what students, families and district staff members have experienced so far this academic year has also been prioritized.
At the elementary level, the same broad schedule is used by each teacher. Teachers then complete daily plans based on lessons that are developmentally appropriate for their students.
“I think that consistency is important for families, because they may have kids in various grade levels, so it’s nice to have that structure there,” Jefferson Elementary School Principal Maggie Maine said in an interview.
Academic standards are also being kept consistent among the different elementary schools of the district.
The schedules for hybrid learning, which had been in place at the elementary level since the beginning of the year and at the secondary level since September 28, are being kept in place as much as possible during distance learning as well. Students remain split into the two groups established for hybrid learning, which attended school in-person on alternate days.
A perception that students in the different groups for hybrid learning would be joined together in common classes again existed, School Board member Allison Quam said. She asked why students had been kept in their hybrid groups after the switch to distance learning.
Washington-Kosciusko Elementary School Principal Dawn Waller Lueck said doing so helps with providing consistent school day schedules for families, and elementary teachers appreciate having smaller groups of students during distance learning. Teachers are better able to help students with things like muting computer microphones and operating computer cameras. They can then more quickly get to doing lessons and activities with students, Waller Lueck explained.
Many Winona Area Learning Center (ALC) students began working more hours at their jobs on the days they were not learning in-person during hybrid learning and got into a routine of doing schoolwork in the evening, Cassellius explained, so staff members wanted to help students stick to their routines.
Remaining in the groups from hybrid learning also assists students with not being in front of a computer screen all day, every school day, as they shift between learning live with teachers and working independently on alternate days, School Board student representative Issara Schmidt said.
One difficulty that arose during hybrid learning has been lessened. Students in quarantine could not attend school in-person while in hybrid learning. Now, students in quarantine are able to participate in distance learning, Waller Lueck noted, unless they are too ill to complete schoolwork.
The challenging aspects of not being able to hold school in-person persist, however.
Finding a new rhythm after switching between learning models multiple times so far this semester has been a more difficult part of the recent shift to distance learning, Auer Lee shared.
Browne’s students are able to log in for distance learning independently, she stated, but younger students may not be able to do so. They may need help from a family member and support from their teacher, which presents a challenge, she said.
Finding ways to help students who are struggling is a difficult part of the school year that goes beyond the shift to distance learning, Winona Education Association President and Winona Senior High School social studies teacher Linda Pfeilsticker noted.
“Some will have mental health issues … maybe they don’t have a space to learn in that’s very conducive, if they’re watching younger siblings,” Pfeilsticker stated. “For some, it’s the holidays as well. There’s economic stress. Maybe they feel they need to work more. School may not feel like the priority to have an economically secure family situation.”
Keep reading the Winona Post for updates on how local schools are responding to the pandemic.