HIBBING — Hopes of delaying the move to the hybrid model were quickly dashed as school started in Hibbing.
Students were excited to begin the new school year on Sept. 9, but on Sept. 10, when the county released the weekly updated infection rate information, the decision to transition from in-person learning for all to a hybrid model in grades 7-12 was triggered by the district’s restart plan.
“My board unanimously felt that we created a plan, we need to be transparent with the community and follow the plan,” said Hibbing Superintendent Richard Aldrich in an interview when news of the transition broke.
On Sept. 11, the fourth day of school, classes were canceled for junior and senior high school students to allow teachers time to transition. The following Monday, Sept. 14, the halls were quieter and less crowded, half of the students began the new form of in-person learning, with more social distancing and an adapted schedule, while the other half of their classmates learned from home.
Hibbing students grades 7-12 are divided into two groups by the first letter of their last name. Last names beginning with the letters A-K are in the blue group and attend in-person learning Monday and Tuesday. Last names beginning with the letters L-Z are in the white group and attend in-person learning Thursday and Friday. Wednesday is distance learning for all students with planning time for teachers and thorough cleaning of the building.
The blue group is distance learning Wednesday through Friday. The white group is distance learning Monday through Wednesday..
Not only have the days of in-person learning changed, but the seven-period day has been stretched to two days.
“The periods are not sequential due to some classes having to stay in together in a block, like the building construction class for example, and auto tech, and a CNA course,” said Ranae Seykora, the assistant principal at Hibbing High School. “We know it is confusing, but students are getting used to the new routine.”
Period one, or homeroom, begins each day of in-person learning. From there, three other classes and lunch breaks fill each day.
‘Preparing for the unknown’
When the infection rate of 10.87 was released on Sept. 10, the restart plan passed by the school board triggered hybrid learning for 7-12 grades.
“The board adopted the Restart Plan in August, which follows the criteria set by the Minnesota Department of Education based on biweekly numbers from the county,” said Aldrich earlier this month.
The infection rate per 10,000 people is released by the state and updated by the county every Thursday. The range determined by the 14-day case rate per 10,000 people reflects the positive infections in a given area, such as Greater St. Louis County.
The most recent infection rates released on Sept. 17 for the date range of Aug. 23 to Sept. 5 were: 13.74 in Greater St. Louis County, 12.98 in the Duluth area and 13.28 for the county’s average.
According to the model recommended by the Education Department, as cases fluctuate, different learning models may be triggered ranging from in-person to hybrid to full distance learning. The model can be found at https://mn.gov/covid19/for-minnesotans/safe-learning-plan/overview.jsp.
While Hibbing began transitioning to the new learning model, other area schools stayed open. Schools were informed that the spike in the infection rate was due to outbreaks in area long-term living facilities. These schools reported being advised to stay in-person learning for all students by county health workers.
Instead of remaining with in-person learning through these outbreaks, the district’s Restart Plan was activated to hybrid learning for 7-12 grades. One reason was that the school board recognized that many of their students, who have completed the CNA class offered at Hibbing High School, work at the area’s long-term care facilities.
“Since this pandemic has started, mid March for us, we have been planning and preparing for the unknown,” said Tyler Glad, the building and grounds director, over email last week. “With this being a new experience for just about everyone we have had to over think everything we do and every decision we are making.”
His crew has been asked to do more than ever as they fight COVID-19. They’ve removed and rearranged furniture throughout the buildings and do extra cleaning. Signage was installed with COVID notifications this past summer, too.
A step ahead of others, Glad ordered cleaning supplies in the spring. While other districts waited for rubber gloves, disinfectants, paper toweling, hand sanitizers and face shields, Hibbing was stocked.
“Our Restart Blueprint is something else that took up a lot of time,” Glad said. “That plan could not have been possible without that entire team working together.” Glad said that by Aug. 3, the plan was in place and ready to be implemented.
“This school year will bring many challenges and different scenarios to all of us,” he added. “As long as we continue to work together as a team, we will make this work and keep our students and staff in our buildings as long as possible.”
Hybrid in Hibbing
Cooper Seykora is in second grade and is enjoying being back in the classroom. “Last year, I went to school on the iPad,” he recalled during a phone interview last Thursday.
“I like going to school everyday. I like riding the bus, I like playing on the playground. I like math,” he said, listing off the advantages of in-person learning from his mother’s, Ranae Seykora, office in Hibbing High School.
Cooper has two older siblings, a sister in seventh grade and brother in eighth grade. They have moved to hybrid learning.
“They do school online. You go on your school iPad, go to Schoology and the teacher put out stuff that you have to do on your iPad,” Cooper said, explaining the details he remembers. “They have to do gym at home. They have a mat and warm up. But that is all they do.”
Even though his older siblings only attend in-person learning two days a week, he does not envy them.
“I don’t want to do it again,” he said of transitioning to distance learning. “Then, I won’t be able to see my friends, go on the bus or play at recess.”
Schools have been encouraged to keep the youngest learners in the classroom as long as possible, stating that they are least likely to become seriously ill with COVID.
While some may not look forward to distance learning, it has now been implemented for the second week and ninth grader Mark Loehrer said it is “working pretty amazingly for my family.”
Loehrer and his seventh-grade sister attend in-person learning two days a week but continue to bike their fourth-grade cousin, who lives with them, to and from school every day.
“It is working for what is going on with the virus and everything,” said Loehrer over the phone, Thursday. “Monday and Tuesday we do school in the basement or our bedrooms. Wednesday we pick a room in the house. Thursday and Friday we are at school.”
Loehrer is spending extra time on learning German. “German is something for myself,” he said. “I make sure to practice every day.”
Other students are using their extra out of classroom time to work longer hours.
Angela Tlummer is a senior who works at Great Clips and she is expanding her hours. “Distance learning, it is not so bad,” she said over the phone Thursday. “The teachers are definitely working hard to make this easier for students. We appreciate that.”
Interviewing on speaker phone with Tlummer was friend and fellow senior Fanci William, who said distance learning is going better than this past spring.
Although classes are more organized, William said it is more difficult for her family. Her brother is in seventh grade and they live with their single-mother. “I have a job and it is hard to help him with his homework when everyone is busy.”
Being a senior, William is beginning to plan for her future. “I don’t know what all my plans are yet but I am thinking of going to Hibbing Community College for two years and then transferring to Mankato.” When asked if she feels she is being adequately prepared for higher education she said, “I think it will be OK.”
‘We could see each other smile’
“The hybrid experience means that we have to shift our focus on how we are going to be learning. We aren't learning different material, just learning the content in a different way,” said Shanna Eskeli, who teaches science for eighth and ninth grades, over email last week.
Eskeli said the hybrid model is important because it gives students the “weekly touch-point” with teachers. This face-to-face time gives students and teachers time to address any topics or areas where there is struggle.
“The hybrid model also helps students to not miss out on hands-on activities they wouldn't be able to do in full-time distance learning,” said Eskeli who added that distance learning this past spring gave them the opportunity to focus on new areas, such as reading scientific articles and discussing.
The hybrid experience has caused many teaching changes. The first decision teachers must make is teach synchronously, with distance students joining virtually, or asynchronously, with teaching in-person and distance learning separately for the given day.
Kate Besemann selected synchronous and asynchronous learning depending on the class.
While teaching synchronously, a Google Meet is kept open and students can join the class live from home or watch the recording later in the day.
Besemann said for the CITS Composition class, which she teaches formatting on Word processing programs, she teaches asynchronously “because the kids at home might not have a computer or can't watch me and type on their iPad keyboards at the same time.”
She said there are benefits and struggles with both types of teaching.
“Even though the hybrid model is more work for teachers, custodians, bus drivers, administrators, and probably everyone working at the school, there is a benefit to having that in person time with each student,” said Besemann over email last week. “Even if I'm only seeing each of my students for 100 minutes each week, it allows for a more traditional approach to teaching and an easier mode for questions and answers that happen in every classroom.”
Besemann admitted that there were hiccups as the hybrid model started, but most of the difficulties were worked through early last week.
One potential issue is the amount of time teachers must devote to lesson planning for both in-person and distance learners as well as communication with students.
“One of the most difficult things for me yesterday was that I was teaching students in my classroom from 8 a.m. to 2:40 p.m. with only a break for lunch, and yet I had 56 students at home throughout the day trying to figure out how to do assignments and complete their tasks,” Besemann said. “Some had questions about assignments and others ran into technology issues. I had at least a dozen emails from students during the day and little time to help them until after school.”
Besemann said that some days she is excited by new challenges while other days she wonders if she is physically going to make it. Just as Besemann questions this, she realized that only through distance learning has she been able to see her students without face masks this year.
“We could see each other smile and read the nuances of facial expressions. I miss that.”
Despite time difficulties, Beseman hopes that everyone is able to continue to do the best they can and learn from this experience.
“This year will be tough for everyone: teachers, students, parents, staff members,” Besemann said. “One positive that I started to even see last spring was that some teachers had a discovery of the exciting and innovative ways technology could be used to enhance teaching. We may see a shift in education across the country that is now supported in new ways with technology.”
Susan Nelson is not only teaching 7-12 graders in science, REACH and theatre, but she is also the Hibbing United Educator’s President.
“I think that Hibbing has done a fantastic job of bringing all members of the district together to make sure the plan works in the classrooms, from the custodial standpoint, and beyond,” said Nelson over email last week. “I am really grateful to be in the school district I am in with the superintendent, administrators and school board that work together as a team with the staff.”
Nelson said that her students have adjusted well and are glad to be in hybrid versus full-distance learning.
“I hope that the numbers in our area go down and we can go back eventually to being fully open. However, I do not want to do that until the numbers dictate that. We put out a very good plan and designated when we would do what. Following the plan we put out is very important in earning the trust of the public.”
Nelson acknowledged that the transition has been difficult, but that the students keep her going. Some parents, too, have had a hard transition but over all she reports that parents are supportive.
“For everyone who is negative there are 10 more that are positive. The problem is that the negative voices get more attention. I would like to hear more positive stories,” Nelson said while stating that she has received supply donations like never before, since students cannot share.