Harriet Bishop Elementary School fourth-grader Lexie Herdegen said she misses a lot about school; her teachers, tech club and her twice-daily visits to the school nurse to manage her diabetes.

The nurse is more like a good friend, Lexie said, but now those interactions are limited to brief hello while picking up a meal at Eagle Ridge Middle School on Thursdays, where Lexie’s nurse volunteers. Lexie also misses a teacher’s jokes, the fun of group activities in gym class and her classmates.

“It's a little lonely," said Lexie’s mom, Tawny Herdegen. “I never would've imagined we'd be in this situation.”

Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District’s switch to distance learning has changed the business of both teaching and studying, staff members and families said in recent weeks. They have adjusted expectations and lost routines but have also found moments of support and connection.

For Hidden Valley Elementary School teachers, an optional Google hangout meeting turned into an almost daily time for dozens of staff members to connect and share their experiences.

“Sometimes you don't realize how much you love something until it changes,” Principal Kristine Black said. “It is new, and it’s different, and it’s hard, but it's worth it. There's no doubt in my mind the amount of time and energy people are putting into teaching has actually grown.”

For elementary students, digital learning is hosted on a platform called Seesaw. Sara Strahota, a kindergarten teacher at Marion W. Savage Elementary School, described it as like a classroom Facebook with an individual, private page for each student to share completed assignments.

She gives a few small assignments each day, such as adding small numbers with a number line or practicing lowercase letters, and can send out recordings of her reading the directions or videos of a lesson. It's mostly review; she's introducing new topics slowly.

"Obviously this isn't the ideal way to teach 5- and 6-year-olds," she said. Attendance and grading are essentially based on whether they try, she added, because it's unrealistic to demand the same progress as in a classroom. "Right now our biggest focus is getting kids engaged, getting families engaged."

Savage resident Amina Hassan’s experiences illustrate the challenge. A mother of four, she said the the first week of distance learning was chaos for her kindergarten, first-grade and second-grade students. She quit her job rather than work from home when the coronavirus crisis hit, and she needed to sit alongside them to help them focus.

"It was way harder than actually preparing them to get out of the house," Hassan said. "You give them the iPad, and they just want to do something that's entertaining.”

Things have calmed down a bit since she created a school schedule for the kids, who attend Harriet Bishop Elementary School. After breakfast, it's school time. After school, it's play time.

"They like it, they have more time to do fun stuff like playing outside," Hassan said. "Women are amazing," she added, referring to how many mothers are dealing with added responsibility.

Lexie, Tawny Herdegen’s fourth-grade daughter, has a knack for using computers and said digital learning is going well, but some classes aren’t as fun.

“Gym I’ve been kind of behind on,” she said.

Hedegren said distance learning in her household is about finding a balance between supporting Lexie’s education and allowing her to maintain her independence, such as by writing out a list of Lexie’s daily school work and allowing Lexie to go through the items at her own pace.

It’s not ideal, Herdegen said, but it’s been an opportunity to see aspects of her daughter’s school life up close, such as the morning video from her teacher. She said she's also been impressed with how teachers are adapting. 

Several teachers said their connections with kids and families have become stronger in some ways. Black said one revelation among her staff is how classroom teaching is sometimes geared toward extroverted students comfortable sharing in large groups.

"Quieter kids are flourishing," she said. "They are sharing in ways they never have before."

In recent weeks Strahota began holding live video conferences to talk with multiple students all at once; they raise their hand on camera to speak. She'll also check in individually with kids and parents to ask if they're getting enough food or dealing with other struggles at home. Social workers can also follow up or check in with families at meal drop-offs.

"It's kind of invited us into their homes," said Crystal Nurmela, a learning specialist who teaches reading at Hidden Valley.

Average student attendance across all schools has been around 90% and gradually rising as district staff check in and try to remove any barriers to attendance, spokesman Aaron Tinklenberg said.

Teachers are also leaning on each other.

Ali Drutowski, a math teacher at Eagle Ridge Middle School, is balancing teaching with caring for her 7-month-old child.

"The main time when I make videos is when I put my baby down to bed," she said.

But a new collaboration with a fellow middle school math teacher has emerged from a challenging situation. Both of them teach algebra and now share their work for making instruction videos and offering Zoom support sessions.

"Students are rising to the occasion,” Drutowski added. “Math is a very challenging subject to learn online, and I'm super impressed by how they are dealing with the adversity."

Nothing replaces the interactions and encouragement in a classroom, several teachers said. But Nurmela, the Hidden Valley specialist, said audio recordings provide a window into a student's progress while she’s unable to see them face to face.

"One of the most powerful things is still being able to hear my student's voice and their reading," she said.

Dan Holtmeyer contributed to this report.

Correction: The grades of Amina Hassan's children were incorrect in a previous version of this article.


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