Third-grade Jackson Elementary School teacher Ann Van Brocklin joined her students online Monday for the second week of this not-so-normal, new normal. Her students each took up two-inch blocks on her computer screen, with an occasional appearance in the background from a cat, a sibling or a reptile. This meeting was part of the class’ weekly check-in.

The first few minutes of the video chat is always housekeeping: making sure each student mutes their piece of the world so their teacher can speak. Many of the students adjusted their oversized headphones, tangled up in the cords. The adjustments created a symphony of white noise and dog barks and whatever else their parents or siblings or pets were cooking or chasing in the background. Van Brocklin didn’t seem phased. She explained how to mute their screens: Press the red circle at the bottom of your screen unless it’s your turn to talk, please.

She held up a white ribbon, tied in a bow, and asked if anyone else had their ribbons with them. Holding the ribbon, she said, means we’re all tied together, even when we’re apart. Nobody responded, but over a computer screen, it’s hard to read people, let alone third-grade kids.

“Boys and girls, I would like each of you to tell me what you did over the weekend, and what you feel you succeeded at last week.”

One girl said she made a cake over the weekend with her mom. “And my success was probably just getting through the week,” she said.

Van Brocklin chuckled. “Yes, I think that’s something we can all say was a success,” she said.

Most of the weekend updates consisted of screen time: video games, television, TikTok videos. Van Brocklin didn’t seem satisfied by third-graders talking of Fort Nite victories as their “successes” from the week. She fished for more information. “Did you do any reading, buddy?” She asked. “Did you go outside at all?”

In this new normal of distance learning, teachers, students and parents are having to adjust to a dependency on technology and an acceptance that they may not see each other for a while. For students who view school as a refuge, the change is heartbreaking. For parents who need to work from home, the change is inconvenient. For most students, the change is just… well, weird. Goofing off over a video-chat class? That’s boring when the teacher can mute you with a single click.

TECHNOLOGY NEEDS

Although screens and technology are things many teachers want their students to stay away from while at home, the only way to do distance learning is with some form of technology.

The technology required for each student varies depending on the grade level and the intensity of the at-home work. In Shakopee, preschool distance learning only entails about 30 to 45 minutes of instructional learning per day, and daily recommended schedules for continued at-home learning. Those students were not issued iPads or computers, Superintendent Mike Redmond said.

For elementary students, the district provided each student an iPad. The amount of time elementary students will spend doing instructional learning increases with each grade level, but the range is between 45 minutes and three hours each day. All grade levels are given daily recommended schedules for continued learning, the district said.

Each morning, Van Brocklin and the three other third-grade teachers at Jackson Elementary send out a template of their students’ schedules each morning by 9 a.m. Each day, a different teacher takes responsibility for a screencast lesson.

“Some teachers individualized it more, but with the new technology component we’ve had to have baptism by fire,” she said. “This is totally changing the way we teach.” .

Van Brocklin’s weekly check-in with her class are to ensure students are doing OK and to ask if they have any questions.

“I said the first week, thank God my classroom management wasn’t being evaluated that day,” she said, laughing. “We had expectations like all teachers. It’s a little like playing whack ‘em all. I can mute students, and they can mute me.”

For students grades 6-12, the district provides students with iPads or laptops, and will participate in between 30 and 60 minutes of instructional learning per day, with daily assignments posted every day by 9 a.m.

Equity hurdles

On April 14, three siblings — Rose, Violet and Lliam Davis lined up outside the doors of Pearson Elementary School waiting to be buzzed in. They wore sweatpants and carried a laptop, not seeming particularly amused by the technology issues they were facing: the Wi-Fi hotspot the district had given them worked, but it was overloaded with their entire family using it. Plus, Rose said, the camera on her Macbook was fuzzy, and it was hard for her to submit video presentations without a working camera.

Redmond said the school district’s goal is to create as much normalcy as possible for students, families and teachers during this time, and part of that normalcy means giving all students access to the same resources they had while in school: technology and food.

So the district delivered Wi-Fi hotspots to families without access, and for those who are having technology issues, there is a full-time help desk available at Pearson Elementary and the school district office. Redmond said families can call ahead of time with their problem, or show up, to get problem-solving help.

“It’s almost like a drive-up help shop,” Redmond said.

An IT support specialist tended to the Davis’ technology problem as if it were a health issue, donned in a mask and latex gloves and standing behind a table.

These sorts of problems are just part of a normal day in the world of social distancing, Shakopee Schools IT Support Specialist Colin O’Brien said. He said each day, there are about six to 10 families who come in needing IT support to continue their school work. Most of those problems revolve around accessing the online platforms they need to use for homework and troubleshooting Wi-Fi problems.

For students who also need to overcome language barriers, Redmond said the district works with a team of cultural liaisons who help English Learner families translate work and help the teachers and counselors communicate with the students.

“They have reinvented how they provide services,” Redmond said.

Adult education out of Tokata Learning Center has reinvented itself, also. The district gave adults who needed access to technology a chromebook. And students with special needs are working through the learning support systems the students need to continue their education from home, Redmond said.

“There’s great challenges in doing that via distance learning,” he said. “Our special education teams did deliveries to hundreds of homes to make sure they had the tools the students would need to make accommodations and support their learning.”

Palmer Bus Company has been carting around the meals to reach students throughout the city. Paraprofessionals and food service workers within the district handed the meals out to students, with long lines weaving through neighborhoods.

On April 6, the day before Redmond spoke to the Valley News, the district had delivered 2,045 meals.

Maddie DeBilzan graduated with a journalism degree from Bethel University. She’s interned at Salon Media and the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Outside of work, she sifts through Goodwill clothing racks, listens to Ben Rector's music and goes on long runs.

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