SOLWAY -- Distance learning became the new normal for families around the state after Gov. Tim Walz extended coronavirus school closures until at least the end of April.

In the first few days of distance learning, which began officially on March 30, local educators and families have found innovative ways to keep students learning while at home -- and even continuing to foster school spirit.

A family’s perspective

Arica Kirby is not usually at home with her children all day, but since her business is currently closed due to COVID-19, she is gaining a new perspective on their learning.

Her children, second-grader Naysen and third-grader Natalia, go to school at Solway Elementary and are beginning to get a handle on their new routines.

“As far as the distance learning goes, the kids have adapted really well. The first two days were really rough, but then they’ve really adapted well, they understand that this is their job now,” Kirby said.

“We’ve definitely had conversations of, ‘I don’t want to do this, I want to be at school,’ so they are going to be disappointed if this lasts through the school year, but at the same time, they are going to do well with it, I think they are handling it really well,” she added.

Kirby said that the most challenging part of distance learning for her children so far has been missing face-to-face interaction with teachers and friends. “They definitely miss their teachers, miss their classrooms, miss their friends,” she said.

Kirby noted that while many people are calling distance learning homeschooling on social media, that is not what it is.

“The teachers have done a phenomenal job of creating a process for them to follow through," she said. "I am helping (Naysen and Natalia) and working with them, but I am not doing the teaching. Everybody keeps calling it homeschooling, but it’s really different because I’m not creating any of the work, I’m only making sure they are getting it done.”

Solway Elementary students Natalia and Naysen Kirby keep busy while staying home by playing games together. Submitted photo.
Solway Elementary students Natalia and Naysen Kirby keep busy while staying home by playing games together. Submitted photo.

Since her kids are so close in age, Kirby said some conflict has arisen when it comes to assignments. On that particular day, Naysen was jealous of his sister’s assignment.

“His sister got an art assignment today that he didn’t get and he’s super disappointed,” Kirby explained.

“-- and she stole my Minecraft time,” Naysen cut in to add to his list of grievances against his sister.

“It’s been challenging if one of them gets to do something the other’s not doing in their classroom -- which would be normal anyway-- it’s just more magnified because they can see everything the other one’s doing,” Kirby explained.

The children spend less time than they usually would in formal instruction -- the district is recommending a couple of hours of online instruction per day -- but more time in other educational endeavors.

“They’ve spent a lot more time cooking, doing things that we wouldn’t necessarily always do. Normally when they are home in the summer, I’m still working, so for me to be home with them, changes what I can do with them,” Kirby said.

Their time is usually divided into school work in the mornings, with educational games, walks and other activities in the afternoon.

Kirby believes this experience will change how families communicate with teachers and parent’s involvement in their children’s learning in the future.

“I’m not at the kids’ school that often, during the day time, during school time, and there’s stuff now that they’re doing that I’m like, ‘Woah, that’s really cool,’ (and they say) ‘oh, yeah, our teacher always does that,’” she said.

Teachers' perspectives

Tiffany Berg, a second-grade teacher at Solway Elementary, said each day of distance learning improves upon the prior day.

“It’s been a few days now -- the first day was really crazy, the second day was better -- every day I felt like it’s getting better," Berg said. "Parents are seeming more comfortable and the kids are getting more independent at what they are doing."

A parent emailed her excited that she had come home from work and her daughter had already completed all of her assignments for the day.

However, Berg said the experience has been tough on the second-graders, especially because they are at an age where social connection is everything. She has tried to implement learning activities that allow students to chat with each other online or call each other, but added, “It’s not the same as seeing each other on the playground.”

“It’s really hard because when you’re in second grade, the best part about being at school is the kids, and so when you’re trying to teach the kids but you don’t get to see them, it’s hard,” she said.

The lack of face-to-face connection has been difficult for her, too. “I miss them and I really do just love them,” she added.

Solway Elementary second-grader Naysen Kirby participates in video learning activities as part of his at-home distance learning. Submitted photo.
Solway Elementary second-grader Naysen Kirby participates in video learning activities as part of his at-home distance learning. Submitted photo.

Courtney Maristuen, a kindergarten teacher at Solway Elementary, said kindergartners are moving from using technology as a supplemental component to their education, to the main component.

She said the biggest surprise of this experience so far has been seeing how well the kids adapt to using new technological platforms at such a young age. Maristuen said she is also realizing the importance of parent-teacher communication.

“Every single day I’m talking to every single parent, because in order to talk to five and six-year-olds, you have to talk to their moms and dads, so parent communication is very important,” she said.

Maristuen also explained that the biggest challenge so far has been making sure every student has access to internet and technological devices.

“Even though that’s our biggest challenge and biggest barrier, the district recognized that right away and is working hard to make sure every student gets a device,” she said.

For Anna Larson, Solway Elementary music teacher, the hardest part about distance learning is not having individual contact with students on a day-to-day basis.

“It’s such a big change, and like everybody else, it’s so emotional because we don’t get to see the kids right now,” Larson said.

For Solway students, each week, Larson provides a choice chart with five musical activities, of which they are asked to choose three.

“That’s great because kids get to choose a little, and the kids are going to get some practice at being intentional thinkers, and their creativity is going to develop,” she said. “Our whole goal is for students to become independent music makers, so this temporary way that they are doing this, maybe they are really going to develop in that regard because they get to make their own choices."

Earlier this week Larson saw some proof of this theory in a video of one of her third-grade students planning percussive rhythms with household items -- including a bathtub. The student even added balls to one of the objects he hit to imitate a snare drum.

A principal’s perspective

The technology may be new to Solway Elementary Principal Brian Stefanich, but he is greeting it with an abundance of enthusiasm. Physical separation is not preventing Solway Tiger pride.

Whenever he ends morning announcements, he leads a familiar chant of “1, 2, 3, Go Tigers!” which is now being shouted in living rooms instead of classrooms.

Stefanich and other faculty members record these morning announcements videos, which are shared on Solway’s Facebook page, to help bring about a sense of normalcy for students.

He also uses the opportunity to squeeze in a few jokes.

Solway Elementary second-grader, Naysen Kirby, recites the Pledge of Allegiance along with his principal Brian Stefanich during a recent daily morning announcement video. Submitted photo.
Solway Elementary second-grader, Naysen Kirby, recites the Pledge of Allegiance along with his principal Brian Stefanich during a recent daily morning announcement video. Submitted photo.

Stefanich said the key to distance learning success is implementing a routine, which he has tried to help with by keeping up with normal routine activities, like School Spirit Fridays and morning announcements.

“The families that are being successful and the kids that are being successful right now, have that routine," he said. "They have a schedule that they follow and stick to because that’s what the kids are used to when they’re at school."

Since Solway is a smaller school with only 142 students, maintaining communication between students, teachers and families is a bit easier.

Stefanich said he recently joined in on a Google Hangout video call with a class of first-graders and was impressed at how well the students adapted to the technology, adding that they knew how to mute their microphones when their teacher was talking.

“It was awesome," he said. "We haven’t seen our kids since they left on Tuesday (March) 17th, so it was awesome to see them all. They were excited to see their friends, they were excited to see their teacher. Every student got to share what they’d been doing, and it was really powerful.”

A superintendent’s perspective

Superintendent Tim Lutz believes new distance learning techniques are allowing children to take charge of their learning, with teachers providing the "scaffolding," a direction he said education is heading anyway.

Lutz said he has heard parents raise questions about distance learning, as many assumed that it would simply be an online replication of traditional classroom instruction. But he said this is not the case.

“Distance learning is where children are sort of a bit more in charge," he explained. "They’re taking ownership of their learning, and families are taking ownership of their learning, and the teacher is providing what’s called the scaffolding -- surrounding the student with support.”

Lutz mentioned this has been the direction education has been heading for the last couple of decades, but that the current situation with COVID-19 is giving the structure more of a push.

His hope is that this sentiment is not misinterpreted by parents as the district dumping the job of teaching on parents and students, but that the old fashioned notion of teaching as teachers regurgitating information to fill students’ heads, “like a container,” is antiquated.

“To be truly engaged in education, we try to have students asking questions, have students be the ones who are truly engaged, truly involved in meaningful, relevant learning," he said. "This experience is forcing us to do that a lot more quickly than anyone ever expected, but it could be a very good thing in the long run if we work together."