BENA -- While other school districts have faced a marathon of obstacles during the pandemic, Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School Director Dan McKeon said his school has endured an ultramarathon.

The pandemic has brought several hurdles, inequalities and new challenges to light for the small school deep in the heart of Leech Lake. Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig Counselor Jay Malchow compared the feat to building an airplane.

The school brought students back into a hybrid model at the end of March, after a full year of full-time distance learning. The hybrid model Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig is following is particularly cautious, with students only coming into the building one day a week right now.

A few weeks after the school started moving towards “normalcy,” the Pioneer stopped by for a visit.

Though students were back in a limited capacity, teachers said their presence could be felt throughout the building.

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“Everybody loves seeing kids in the building again. Sitting here in my office, sometimes I can hear kids playing in the gymnasium, or you see a teacher walking down the hallway with a group of kids,” McKeon said. “Having students in the building, everybody has breathed a collective sigh of relief, because it's what we're all here for. We haven't had them here for so long, and it's really been tough.”

The ultramarathon

During this era, many people have thrown around the phrase, “an abundance of caution,” but McKeon said he takes it to heart. Spread out on his desk, are no fewer than four printed copies of the COVID-19 decision-making tree.

“Our organization has consistently been one of the more cautious in the area. There are several reasons for that. No. 1 is to make sure we're protecting the community, and particularly the elders in the community,” he said. “A very high percentage of our students live in multi-generational homes. Even though a student might be 7 or 8-years-old, it's entirely likely that they live with somebody who's 55, 75, 85-years-old. We don't want to be responsible for them getting it here and then bringing it to more vulnerable people. That's why we stayed in distance learning longer.”

Despite case rates in the area declining, McKeon said, “We're still going to be an organization that errs on the side of caution.”

In adopting more cautious learning models, the school faced major obstacles -- one of the greatest being the lack of electronic devices and internet access among school families.

Only around 45% of student households had internet access at the start of the pandemic, McKeon said.

“For us, it's been a logistical nightmare in some ways, because we had to get households hooked up to the internet that didn't have it. We have to get more devices in the hands of kids so that they can truly have a one-to-one deployment of devices,” he said. “Believe it or not, there are a lot of people out here who didn't use email, it wasn't a part of their life really. If that's their starting point, we have a long way to go before they can participate in the distance learning effort.”

The lack of technology was an issue among faculty and staff as well. By far the most challenging aspect, McKeon said, was getting staff up to speed. In comparison to other schools that may have been using programs like Google Classroom long before the pandemic, Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig was fairly low-tech.

“The most challenging was the professional development for staff and helping everybody figure out how to teach online. That was a huge challenge. All things considered, I think we did a pretty good job with it. I'm not gonna say that we've had high rates of success with distance learning. There are so many factors involved that we can't control. But I think overall as an organization, we had that situation thrown at us, and I think we responded really well,” he said. “I really feel we ran an ultramarathon. Other schools had to go a long way, but not as long as we did.”

Constructing an airplane

In the spring of 2020, during the governor-mandated closure of all schools statewide, Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig was working strictly with pen and paper.

“Teachers would print off their assignments and send them home with the meal deliveries -- which didn't work so well. We got some people to participate and some people just kind of started off their vacation for summer a little early,” Malchow explained. “It's been difficult with distance learning. We found about 25% of our students were successful with distance learning. Another 25% is checked out, they didn't want to engage in it at all. And then the other 50% in the middle were all over the spectrum.”

In itself, the delivery of supplies and meals presented a major challenge, as the school has one of the most complicated transportation systems around, according to Malchow.

Counselor Jay Malchow gestures toward boxes containing meals to be distributed to students at Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School on Thursday, April 15, 2021. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
Counselor Jay Malchow gestures toward boxes containing meals to be distributed to students at Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School on Thursday, April 15, 2021. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

“We pick up and drop off every single student at their door,” he said. “We don't have bus pick-up points as most schools do. And some of our bus routes are around pretty remote roads, which is why when we have inclement weather, you'll hear 'Ah, Bug School is closed again, they close if there's a snowflake,' Well, that's because some of our bus routes don't get plowed out for two days.”

For the fall semester, the decision was made to continue with distance learning, so the move toward online learning began.

“In July, I believe, it was the school board that made the decision to start off the school year with distance learning. So we had to build that airplane before we could even run it down the runway,” Malchow said, adding that his summer days were filled with Zoom training.

As a counselor, Malchow said he is particularly glad to have some students back in the building.

“You set up a Zoom meeting and you sit there by yourself,” he said. “I'm eager when the buses get here, because I look and see who's supposed to come on that day. And I go, ‘Oh, I need to meet with that student, and that student and that student,’ and I actually have a meeting with students in my day where in the fall and the winter, it was nothing.”

Back in the building

Though some students are back within the school’s walls once again, it certainly isn’t business as usual.

Students are masked, expected to keep a six-foot distance, and meals are eaten in classrooms instead of in the cafeteria.

The current Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig hybrid model allows for a 25% capacity, so students are able to attend in person one day per week. Since the school has around 200 students in grades K-12, they are split into cohorts of 50 students, which each attend on the same days each week. These cohorts were designed geographically, grouping together students who live in the same area for ease of bussing.

McKeon said around 15% of the students are still choosing to distance learn full-time, which is a lower number than administrators expected.

But the students that are in school seem happy to be back. Sophomores Isabella Schaumburg, Emilio Rodriguez and Helainea Roybal expressed that while they enjoyed the reduced stress of distance learning, they didn’t feel they learned as much. As sophomores, the students felt they have missed out on a good portion of their high school experience thus far.

Schaumburg said she was disappointed she was going to miss out on some annual field trips she’d been looking forward to, as well as the usual end-of-year activities.

All three agreed the thing they liked best about being back in the building was seeing their friends.

Going forward

While nearly everyone at the school seems glad to be beyond full-distance learning, there are a few hallmarks from the distance learning era that will stick around.

Malchow, who has been at the school since 2008, said he and five other members of the support staff developed a mentorship program during distance learning to help the students most struggling. This program was such a success that it will continue to expand, allowing students to be paired with mentors beyond the six support staff members.

Malchow said, depending on whether funding for internet access and devices remains, the school may implement distance learning to avoid snow days during inclement weather.

The drive-up commencement format used for the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig class of 2020, will also stay in place. Though the class of graduating students is small, McKeon said, many wanted to bring with them carloads of well-wishers, making the drive-up format the safest. This year’s commencement will be held on Thursday, May 27.

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McKeon said he has to keep reminding students and staff that while things are looking up, “we aren’t out of the woods just yet.”

“The challenge is managing expectations,” he said. “With vaccinations being available, and after we went through that period of declining case rates, I think a lot of people felt like we were finally out of the woods and this was coming to an end. But that's not really the case. It's about appreciating the fact that we can have kids in the building again, while also maintaining vigilance and being careful.”