If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
Mountain Iron-Buhl (MIB) and St. Louis County (SLC) Schools are doing just that. After getting off to a tough start, both districts will be adjusting plans for both in-person and distance learning models.
Distance learners at the elementary level will no longer be under the same teacher as in-person learners.
Grades 7-12 will distance learn every Wednesday, starting Oct. 7, to allow faculty more time to prepare.
“The hope is to provide a better educational opportunity for both students who are attending in-person and those students who are attending online,” said Dr. Reggie Engebritson, Superintendent at both SLC and MIB districts, over email Tuesday. “This is all new to teachers and they want to ensure that all students are being reached and making educational growth.”
Last week, parents at the SLC and MIB districts received the same message outlining the new two-part plan. These school districts share the same superintendent, Dr. Reggie Engebritson, and although they remain separate they often collaborate and share such policies and procedures.
“We now have three weeks of school under our belt and as we work through all the challenges, we are realizing that we are not able to do our best work when in-person learners and distance learners are in the same classroom,” stated the MIB parent letter.
The same message was sent to the parents in SLC schools. “Because our teachers take personal responsibility to make sure each child is making educational progress, the amount of time to plan for both sets of learners has become a challenge...we are going to combine some classes and our elementary teachers will either teach all in-person learners or all distance learners.”
As classes and teachers are adjusted, elementary students may see changes from the start of the year.
For SLC, Thursday, elementary families will know if their teacher will change. Monday, school has been canceled, to allow teachers time to prepare, with transitions made on Tuesday.
For MIB, the elementary plan is not yet finalized as teachers for distance learners are still being found.
“We are not able to separate in-person learners from distance learners at the high school level, so we need to give teachers more time for the planning and preparation that is involved,” stated both letters. “Every Wednesday, starting Oct. 7, all students in grades 7-12 will work from home on projects or assignments.”
Starting next week, 7th-12th grades will all distance learn, every Wednesday. This will allow teachers the necessary time to plan and prepare as they will continue to teach both in-person and distance classes.
Several factors play into these decisions including: the pandemic, the teacher shortage and teacher burnout.
“Teachers had to quickly learn how to do distance learning last spring, and now have to learn how to have both in-person and distance learners in the same class,” said Engebritson listing several issues. “There are technology concerns, parent concerns, recording lessons, uploading lessons, attendance concerns (students who are at home and not connecting at all), planning lessons, students who have symptoms leaving to go home in isolation for up to 14 days and planning for them, students returning from isolation and catching them up, having symptoms themselves and having to teach to the classroom from home, and overall general anxiety about COVID.”
“We want kids in school and we believe that kids need to be in school. But, it's not like it was at this time last fall,” said Engebritson, who is working with teachers and parents to find solutions. “We are in this together and together we find our way in an educational time like no other.”
Teachers Stretched Thin
The changes at both the MIB and SLC districts are due to changes in learning styles and expectations in the COVID-19 era. These changes do not come unwarranted, but follow teacher’s unions at both districts approaching administration and school boards.
The Minnesota Department of Education required that public schools provide families with a distance learning option. For smaller schools, where there has traditionally only been one class for each grade and therefore only one teacher per grade, this means that both in-person and distance education has fallen on a single teacher.
“Teachers are pulling double duty,” said Tim Herring, union president of EdMN Local 1406 who works at Cherry, during a public meeting between several members of the SLC school board and the teacher’s union on Sept. 15. The meeting was well attended on Zoom. “We are just letting you know, this isn’t working at all.”
Several teachers from across the SLC district told stories of hours and up to days it takes material to upload for distance learners. It takes extra time to prepare when half the class has a different set of resources or needs.
“Being effective at in-person and distance learning are different,” said Tammy Bjorge who teaches high school math at South Ridge School. “We are trying to be successful but everyday I feel like I’m failing someone– kids in the classroom or at home. Every hour I’m trying to be in two places at once.”
Bjorge said she didn’t have a suggestion but wanted it to be known that everyday “I am encountering a major catastrophe.” She said it was an “aspect of time” and not having enough.
Engebritson said it was not the intention that teachers work double as it was a single lesson.
“Offering distancing learning is just wrong,” Daniel Manick said. “We were dealt this hand. We didn’t choose to go to distance and in-person...logistically, this seems like a nightmare.”
“These are all new problems that teachers are having,” Chris Koivisto said. “We need to put our heads together.”
The meeting ended with both the school district and teacher’s union understanding current classroom difficulties and that changes were necessary.
Similar to this meeting at SLC, MIB’s teacher’s union also approached their administration and members of the school board last week.