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Cathy Bockenstedt, a science teacher at Central Middle School, set up a work station at home to replace her classroom as she and the rest of the district began virtual classes last week.

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.

Eden Teller is the multimedia reporter for Eden Prairie News. She's passionate about fostering productive conversations and empowering communities. When she's not reporting, she can be found reading a book, on a hike or tackling home improvement projects.

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