BEMIDJI -- On the morning of Sept. 17, more than a dozen smiling little faces logged onto Google Classroom to begin their school day.

Some fidgeted in their desk chairs, some wore oversized headphones, others displayed their breakfasts, while more turned their microphones on and off. Appearing in a neat video grid was Nancy Neis’ first-grade distance learning class -- who have given themselves the moniker, the Monarchs.

“I see some people, I don’t see everybody’s beautiful faces, so remember, video needs to be on,” Neis said, addressing the group. “First graders, look, everybody has their mute on, thank you! This is why we practice turning our mute on and off. I can see 16 friends on the screen -- oh, Talia just joined us, good morning Talia.”

“Good morning!” Talia cheerfully replied.

“Alright, get your mute on Talia, we are going to take attendance in just a minute,” Neis responded.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

To take attendance that Thursday, Neis asked the students one by one to unmute themselves and reveal their favorite color.

“We have been talking a lot about how colors and feelings match, like if we are feeling blue, that kind of means we are feeling sad,” Neis said. “I haven’t gotten to ask what your favorite color is, so that’s what we’ll do for attendance today.”

“Pink,” one student said.

“Silver!” another chirped.

“Red,” another replied.

The roll call was a lengthy process, as Neis often had to remind the young students to mute or un-mute themselves -- a distance learning classroom problem -- and to wait for their turns -- a typical classroom problem.

This start to the morning was mirrored by more than 800 other students within the Bemidji Area Schools district who are voluntarily participating in full-time distance learning.

Christine Christiansen, the K-8 Distance Learning Lead for the 2020-2021 school year, formerly a reading specialist for the district, said with the large number of students between kindergarten and fifth-grade choosing distance learning, it’s almost like the district added an elementary school.

“At least at the K-5 setting, it is literally almost like a whole other separate school,” Christiansen said. She added for example, there might be four students from each of the six elementary schools in any given distance learning class.

Christiansen said this fact is how Neis’ class became the “Monarchs.”

“They did this really fun thing and they decided they’re going to make their own mascot to represent their class,” she said. “One of the grandmas in this first-grade classroom who is helping her student said ‘Maybe you guys should be the monarchs because monarchs come from all around and gather together,’ we thought that was so sweet because they are -- some from Solway, some from Northern, and they’re coming together, and they’re meeting one of our district teachers, and they’re creating a new team.”

A typical day

In Neis’ class that Thursday, the children were reading “A Bad Case of the Stripes,” a book by David Shannon, which centers on addressing feelings of nervousness and anxiety.

Some of these students may be feeling this way, Neis indicated, especially starting a new school year in a new, unfamiliar way, with new classmates.

“We’ve been talking this week about jitters and about how this is a new way to learn, a new way to go to school, and you might have some jitters about it,” she said.

One student unmuted herself to interject, “I remember this book from kindergarten,” she said. “I was very, very scared of it.”

“Did you get over your jitters in kindergarten?” Neis asked her.

“Well… it’s still very scary. Like Maleficent,” the student replied.

“Thank you, you can mute your mic again,” Neis advised her, and moved the lecture along.

Students were then asked to draw a picture of a time that they were nervous.

This morning meeting is one of three synchronous, class video meetings per day: morning meeting, math instruction and reading instruction.

In between this, students work on asynchronous assignments -- this might include doing independent reading or work, or watching pre-recorded videos from the instructor, such as watching a video of a story being read, then at 10 a.m. logging on to discuss as a class.

“This is not an independent study,” she said. “Distance learning school looks different from homeschool or independent study where you can just do it all on your own time. That being said, the afternoons are quite flexible and there is a fair amount of asynchronous work that they can be flexible with.”

This is the case throughout the K-5 level, things look different for older distance learners.

“At the 6-12 level, whoever is the teacher you have listed on your schedule, they are also your teacher for distance learning,” Christiansen said. “It’s kind of like if you do distance learning, at the middle school or high school, you’re kind of on that hybrid schedule, and you just never come off of it, you are always doing what your peers who are at home that week are doing.”

Who makes up the distance learning team?

The K-5 distance learning team is made up of 12 teachers, Christiansen explained, many of which are teaching different grades than they ordinarily would.

In a typical year, Neis is a J.W. Smith Elementary teacher.

These 12 teachers, for the most part, either self-identified as someone who needed to work from home due to being high risk, or whose classes were eliminated due to changing enrollment at other schools.

“It was very scary,” Christiansen said. “As the numbers kept growing and growing, we couldn’t keep up and staff it, so we literally did not even have all of our teachers in place until Wednesday, Sept. 9, and school started on Sept. 14.”

“There’s no way we could’ve done it without that second week,” she continued, speaking of the delayed start date.

Bridging the gap

While there are some pros to distance learning -- it is safer for high risk families, students can learn to be more independent and better with technology -- the challenges are constantly mounting.

There are many gaps in student situations, children are not always in the best learning environments. Many technology needs are still not met -- the district’s order for more Chromebooks has not been fulfilled, some students still lack internet access.

“We are aware of the struggle of families who have more than one kid at home,” Christiansen acknowledged. “What is unfortunate is we don’t have enough devices to give more than one per family right now. We have some ordered, but they are on backorder. We know that’s a struggle for families, so we are recording what we can, so you can go back and look at recordings. It’s not an ideal situation either.”

Aside from the technology and home equity gap, the distance learning team wanted to help address other gaps between the distance learners and the kids physically in school -- such as, celebrating birthdays, having time to talk with friends outside of class settings, recess and other school staples.

School pictures have already proven to be an issue.

“Things look different in distance learning, but we also have to remember, even though you might be missing something in distance learning, sometimes the students that are experiencing that same schedule (within physical school buildings). They are not experiencing a typical year either,” she said. “I’ve never worked this hard in 13 years, this is the craziest educational ride I’ve ever been on.”