Eric Songer

Music teacher Eric Songer performs for sixth-graders on their first day of middle school in 2019. Teachers are preparing for a much-different year ahead.

Music teacher Eric Songer wonders if the technology will hold up. Science teacher Gillian Gale wonders what will happen if and when students or teachers get sick. Assistant Superintendent Erin Rathke sees more questions than answers in districts around the state.

Welcome back to the 2020-21 school year.

With students set to step on campus four days a week at the kindergarten through fifth-grade level, and twice a week in a two-group hybrid schedule for sixth through eighth grade on Sept. 8, Eastern Carver County Schools has just a few more days to prepare staff for what's to come.

"We’re genuinely itching to get back with our kids with the anticipation, eagerness, determination measuring off the charts right now. However, there’s certainly a lot of apprehension accompanying those feelings," said Andrew Waller, social studies teacher at Chaska Middle School East.

"We know we’ll be sharing the same air as 15-20 others for 80-90 minutes at a time in a confined classroom space," Waller said. "While some are not especially concerned for themselves, many of us have family members we’re worried about, which means going back into isolation outside of school once the year begins so as not to unwittingly spread something to a loved one."

STAY HEALTHY

Paramount to the learning of district students is keeping teachers and staff healthy and safe.

Protocols are in place for daily individual health monitoring, frequent hand washing, physical distancing, and use of face coverings. Protocols for those who are positive, symptomatic, or have contact with a COVID positive case will be followed.

Routine cleaning and disinfecting is key to maintaining a safe environment for students and staff.

"I feel if we can properly take the precautions by wearing masks all the time except when eating or when we are outside taking a mask break, keeping socially distanced, and consistently washing hands several times throughout the day, we can return to middle school safely," said eighth-grade science teacher Gillian Gale of Chaska Middle School East. "I want to be back with students and I know they want to be back in school. I believe we are prepared to do what it takes to make this happen at East. I am hoping the community outside the school can follow suit. We need to have everyone on the same page to make this work."

A revised teacher workshop week, which got underway across the District Aug. 31, focused on professional development. Staff gathered, socially distant, some watching remotely from their classrooms, to learn best practices in preparation for the school year.

Erin Rathke, assistant superintendent for District 112, said the workshop week included plenty of professional development.

"At elementary schools where we'll have 100% of our students in the building, we're really doing what we can to spread out. Principals and teachers have been working hard to plan to use the most physical space available. They've removed some furniture. Our classrooms resemble a much more traditional classroom with desks in row," Rathke said. "It's hard on teachers. Our district prides itself so much on personalized learning. This is not how they have been teaching."

Thus summer Gale has been reading Jennifer Gonzalez’s "Cult of Pedagogy," "Edutopia" and works by Katie Martin, author of "Learner-Centered Innovation."

"I look for information on the best strategies to build connections with students in a hybrid and distance learning model. I am finding tons of articles with solid strategies about how to set up learning online. The most common theme is keep the learning to what is essential. Keep it streamlined by not using too many new tech tools. Build trust and authentic connections with students and families," she said.

Easier said than done.

"The difference of building a relationship with a student you meet only online is much harder than a student you meet in person. The hybrid model will allow me to meet with students once a week for a block of about 82 minutes. I figure I will have the best relationship with my advisees, which I will see three times a week. If we pivot to online learning, the relationships we build will be critical," she said.

MIDDLE SCHOOL HYBRID

At middle schools, with 50% of the students in the building, a block schedule is in place. That means a student will visit half of his or her classes one day a week in person, and another online.

Rathke said there will be a live teacher opening up classes for kids at home. While that teacher may not be available the whole class period, ECCS is asking teachers to be live with kids, giving them direction at home.

"Effective learning is interactive. My social studies classes typically consist of active engagement, followed up by almost immediate feedback from myself and/or peers. The personal interaction is made more difficult in the distance-learning model," Waller said. "I can assign tasks for kids to complete at home, but because I’m teaching in person all day, it may be a full day or more before I can provide feedback on student work. And because of time constraints, the feedback might be less personal than what I’m able to provide in the classroom.

"In short, the content doesn’t change, but the majority of lessons have to be recreated or at least significantly adjusted because they were designed to be more interactive than current circumstances allow."

For Eric Songer, a Chaska Middle School West music educator in the district since 1997, his classes are much about the relationships, the connections with other people in the room. Something that can only be replicated in person.

"Sitting there trying to teach a class, whether it being orchestra, band, it is about getting their instruments out and playing. These kids didn't sign up to make music in their home. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts," he said.

Because of that, Songer will use what short time he has with students in person to make sure what he wants them to know they get.

Waller said teachers are finding it difficult to plan specific lessons not knowing how instruction will be delivered.

"So many of us are focusing on what we can right now, with the understanding that flexibility will be key. I intend to have an outline of content and skills on which to focus, but not plan lesson specifics more than one or two weeks out, he said.

"Another source of trepidation is the workload. Many put in long hours during distance learning last year and for many who are doing some level of distance learning along with in-person learning, the potential workload is tremendous. We’ll have to figure out how to balance attention to our in-person kids while still supporting the at-home kids, often times outside of school hours," Waller added.

The district is currently testing technology with cameras and tripods, though equipment is on backorder.

"There is so much that still has to be figured out," Songer said. "The biggest concern, besides the actual COVID virus, is the technology. Will it hold up? Today I spent a good hour trying to see how this is going to work with our grading system. We just don't know. Things won't be perfect, there will be trying moments, but it's not because of a lack of effort, a lack of caring. Everyone is trying to put their best foot forward with all of this."

'IN IT TOGETHER'

"Last Thursday, we had our WEB day, where we bring in all of the sixth graders, introduce them to the school," Songer said. It's a big day of team-building activities. While there was far less going on, it felt so good as a teacher. Something has been taken away from me the last five months. I can't wait to get done with this week so we can see our students."

Rathke said a majority of the teaching staff agree with Songer. They want to be in-person in front of students.

"They want the community to know how they feel. We want to share their voice. We value their voice, what they are sharing. They want to be safe, and we want them to be safe. We are following all MDE/MDH guidelines to ensure them safety. We all have to be in it together," she said.

Songer believes in the long run, the experience learned from these times could benefit teachers, and most importantly, students.

"It's made me a better teacher. I've been looking at our district learning targets, our curriculum, trying to better under what do I want them to know. The possibilities after this is over are amazing. Opportunities for the future, how we teach, will be so much better than anything I've ever done before," he said.

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