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Distance learning is full of challenges and silver linings for Eden Prairie teachers and students

Eden Prairie’s students went back to school last week, in a manner of speaking.

Armed with computers, tablets and smartphones, the district’s pupils and their teachers are making the most of distance learning and all its challenges (and a few silver linings).

For Kristin Gabel, who teaches ninth- and 10th-grade biology at Eden Prairie High School, the switch to a virtual classroom wasn’t entirely new. She and a colleague previously participated in a blended learning cohort to learn how to incorporate online learning into their classrooms.

“That has been a life-saver for me and made it much easier to make that transition,” Gabel told Eden Prairie News in a phone interview.

Although Cathy Bockenstedt, an eighth-grade science teacher at Central Middle School, called this year the most difficult in her 31 years of teaching, she’s found distance learning to be fairly successful thanks to three factors: Her colleagues and administrators have provided a wide network of support, students are “remarkably” engaged in the online classroom (she had 100% attendance for the first three days of class), and the district is well-equipped with devices thanks to the technology referendum that Eden Prairie voters approved in 2014.

“We have huge gratitude, all of us, to the community and the parents who gave us the technology referendum,” Bockenstedt said.

Learning alone is hard for many students who may have relied on peers for help with a challenge, or who are too shy to ask a question but know how to ask for help with nonverbal cues, Bockenstedt said. But in some cases, working from home has helped her students who struggle in noisy classrooms focus on their work.

Gabel is also struggling with the lack of face-to-face contact.

“I could look at a kid and go, ‘Oh yeah, I don’t think they’re getting it right now,’” she reflected. “I miss the assessing you do on the fly, in the classroom, to help kids. Now I’m trying to figure out how to do that in the virtual world.”

“I’m an extrovert people-person, so this is very different in that capacity, to not have that direct connection to (students),” Bockenstedt agreed. “But I feel connected to them thanks to all of the technology that we’ve got.”

Across the board, teachers have been whittling their curricula down to the bare essentials, Gabel said, in order to make the digital workload doable. And if they have trouble, Gabel’s students have a Google phone number to call that will connect them with their teacher, and she’s encouraging them to use it at the first sign of trouble.

“I keep telling them it’s just like walking up to my desk,” she said.

In response to a question Eden Prairie News posted on Facebook to Eden Prairie Schools’ families, several parents shared their experiences with the first week of distance learning. They all struck a balance between frustration with the format and appreciation for how hard their students’ teachers are working to translate their content to a virtual classroom.

Sheetal Shal’s children attend kindergarten and sixth grade at Eagle Ridge Academy and shared the challenges and silver linings of distance learning. Her kindergartner misses school lunch, Shal said, but is happy to be learning; her sixth-grader appreciates the newfound flexibility in their schedule but finds it harder to understand new concepts without teachers and misses social time with friends.

Gabel experienced her students’ renewed enthusiasm for the classroom on her first day of lessons, when the only assignment was to email her and tell her how they were doing. Some students sent a few sentences, but others sent several paragraphs and even videos.

“I think they were very eager to get back, to have some kind of normalcy,” Gabel reflected, and noted that she picked up on a strong sense of “I’m ready to do something other than hang out with my family” from her students.

As for Shal and her spouse, she’s grateful to be home and safe and thankful to the district’s staff, who have made distance learning “pretty smooth with minor tech issues,” she wrote to Eden Prairie News on Facebook. “Just have patience and do our best to learn and enjoy what we have in hand,” she advised the community.

Gaminee Sura, an Eden Prairie Schools parent, acknowledged teachers’ hard work while also noting that the pandemic makes it hard to strike a balance between working from home and helping her students.

“I feel the teachers are absolutely going above and beyond, answering emails at all hours of the day/night/weekend,” Sura wrote. “But this is hard. Balancing work and helping kids navigate school is unreal. That in itself is a full-time job.”

Amy Kornis’ children are feeling the social isolation sharply, she wrote, but the workload has been reasonable and she’s grateful for the teachers who are “going above and beyond to make things as accessible as possible.” When one of her child’s teachers received feedback that their class format was challenging, she created an entirely new format and sent it out on a Saturday night, Kornis said as an example.

Jessica Kuenzli has had some troubles with her child’s school-issued iPad and has resorted to using the family’s personal laptop to download some assignments.

“Not all families have that luxury,” she wrote to Eden Prairie News on Facebook. Still, she made sure to note that her student’s teachers have been “amazing” and are working hard under “incredibly difficult circumstances.”

Bockenstedt and Gabel are feeling the impact of the circumstances in more ways than one.

“I would get sometimes 10,000 steps before I left my school building because of all the wandering around, checking, and now I get about 3,000 steps a day if I’m lucky,” Bockendstedt said with a laugh.

Gabel’s office environment has been slightly improved, she said. Her classroom at EPHS doesn’t have any windows, and the small silver lining of this set-up is that she can look outside while she works.

“That’s been a treat, to drink coffee out of a normal mug and look out a window,” she said.

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As pandemic cancels vacations, Flying Cloud Airport stays busy

In February, Eden Prairie-based travel agent Jill Peifer was busy booking spring break trips and summer vacations. Then the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic began to spread in the U.S., and businesses and government officials began to order shut-downs across the country.

That meant a nix on those getaways.

“When COVID hit, we basically had to undo everything we had done for the past number of months,” Peifer said.

She had booked 19 reservations between March and July, and by March 10, every single one of them had been canceled. That’s extremely atypical; in her six years with travel company Travel Leaders, Peifer hardly ever cancels trips, she said.

“Usually when people are going, they’re going,” she explained.

Just under half of the trips Peifer booked were canceled by Peifer’s customers. The others got the kibosh from the business side − that is, the cruise line or resort told her they were canceling the reservation due to the pandemic.

Peifer’s experience rings true across the country, and around the world. According to the flight tracking website FlightRadar24, March 2020 global commercial flights dropped by 27.7% compared to the same month in 2019.

Trade group Airlines for America, recorded an average of just 29,800 domestic daily flights for the week of April 6, compared to 111,000 in the week of Jan. 7 this year. According to the American Hotel and Lodging Association, 80% of hotel rooms in the U.S. were empty as of April 8.

Eden Prairie’s Flying Cloud Airport hasn’t been hit quite as hard as larger airports like Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP), in part because most of the flights there are from personal or chartered jets.

“It is safe to say that, due to impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are days in which aircraft operations on the MAC’s (Metropolitan Airports Commission) reliever airport system surpass those at MSP,” said Patrick Hogan, the director of communications for the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC), in an email to Eden Prairie News.

In September 2019, there were around 240 flights coming in and out of Flying Cloud daily; between March 15 and April 6, there was an average of 265 flights per day, according to Hogan. Flight volume varies widely based on the day, with a low of 22 flights on March 19 and a high of 535 on April 4.

Peifer lives close enough to Flying Cloud Airport that she can hear the planes taking off, she said, a stark contrast to the number of canceled flights that have piled up in her business life.

Even before cancellations began to rain down, Peifer’s clients made some changes because of the coronavirus. Some people changed their plans to travel to Italy, which was hit hard and early by the virus, while others modified their cruise room assignments.

“I had even customers upgrading to balconies so if they were quarantined, they’d get a balcony − and then those got canceled too,” she said.

The biggest question Peifer hears from her customers these days is, “When is it safe to travel again?” She’s hesitant to give definitive answers but said some people have rescheduled their vacations for November 2020 despite talk of a second wave of the virus in the fall.

She recommends hopeful travelers read the fine print on their airline tickets and purchase from airlines that offer unlimited changes to the ticket, or at least one change. She’s bullish on the return of the travel industry when the pandemic finally ends, noting that her customers were able to “sit back and wait and see what happened” while she handled their trip cancellations, as opposed to people who booked independently, many of whom spent hours on the phone with airlines trying to get refunds or vouchers.

“I think it actually pushes people, and makes people really think about using a travel agent or adviser,” she conjectured.

Personally, Peifer − who’s “pretty optimistic and a little bit more daring,” she said − took advantage of cheap fares and bought plane tickets for her family to visit Europe in August, though she’s realistic about the likelihood of the trip actually happening.

“I’m not sure we’ll be doing that at this point,” she said. “Hopefully this’ll all be a memory by then.”