It was 8:40 on a drizzly Tuesday morning and Amy Rutter’s Jackson Elementary School kindergarten students were already dancing in their living rooms as part of a necessary “brain break.”

Each student’s screen offered tiny windows into their individual worlds as they came together for class and were asked to pay attention to the virtual learning in front of them.

A dad was spotted pouring Cheerios in the kitchen backdrop of one student’s screen. On another screen, a mother kissed the top of her little student’s head as she walked past, after which the girl smiled sheepishly into the camera. A Christmas tree lit up the background of another student’s screen.

When Ms. Rutter asked the students to take out their learning folders, parents emerged from the backgrounds, folders in hand, helping them shuffle through pages to find the worksheet that helps them learn how to write the letter “y.”

“Y-y-yarn. Come on, say it with me, boys and girls,” Rutter said. “I know you’re muted, but I want to see your mouths move.”

If students weren’t making eye contact with the camera, she asked them to touch their fingers to the screen to keep them focused. Just as in a normal class, students got antsy, and now more than ever, she needed them to pay attention while she had them online.

On Nov. 23, all Shakopee schools — from kindergarten to high school — transitioned to fully distanced learning as COVID-19 cases surged in Scott County. The move is one that teachers, students and parents have called far from ideal. But Shakopee educators are making it work.

Though the announcement came as a disappointment, it was no surprise to teachers, who have been preparing behind the scenes for distance learning since last spring.

Rutter said she talked with her team about what it would look like to transition to distance learning.

Hunkering down

A digital learning coach helped introduce distance learning technology tools to the kindergarten students. Rutter sometimes would go to another room and talk to her kindergarten students over video calls as a sort of “distance learning drill” to make sure they were prepared.

“With a lot of positive conversation and setting expectations of what it would look like at home versus here, we began to really hunker down practicing every subject on a Google Meet,” Rutter said. “We not only did that in our writing, reading, sonics and math area, but specialists as well. That was really a positive thing.”

East Middle School eighth-grade math and algebra teacher Matt Braa has been a teacher for 19 years, 14 of which he’s spent in Shakopee. Normally, to begin a new year, Braa tweaks and builds off the curriculum he’s spent his career creating. This year, Braa said, he’s basically had to rewrite all the curriculum to make it distance-learning friendly.

“It’s like I’m a first-year teacher,” Braa said, adding he can barely keep up with the pace some of his students are learning at.

“Right now, I’m two to three weeks out, and that’s it. I had a kid on Tuesday who went through and did five lessons. So they’re right on top of me.”

Transitioning to fully online from a student perspective is smoother for eighth-graders, who are already familiar with the technology and tools required to learn from home. But that doesn’t mean it comes without challenges.

Missed interaction

For teachers like Braa and Rutter, taking away the human interaction portion of the curriculum is worrisome. Even when they were learning in person this year, they said human interaction was minimal to begin with.

“We like when kids talk and collaborate and process with their peers, but in person they’re six feet apart,” Braa said. “With my class, they can go at their own pace, and they really like that aspect of it… but they miss that interaction with their peers. A lot of kids love that about schools.”

Rutter said for kindergarten students especially, in-person learning is an integral part of the curriculum: learning how to make friends and be a friend, how to work in teams and how to treat other people their age.

Burdening parents

Rutter also worries about overburdening her students’ parents. Keeping students at home to learn is a big ask, especially when those students are so young they aren’t able to tell time or remember where they last placed their markers.

Braa and Rutter each said in their nearly 20-year teaching careers, they have never dealt with anything this challenging. And though their experiences working with kindergartners and eighth-graders will be drastically different, students’ needs are their first priorities, and that means making sure their students engage, even if their students are wearing pajamas in their living rooms.

“I never imagined teaching being like this,” Braa said. “It’s been a fun problem to solve.”

Tough on teachers

Though it’s a problem they’re able and willing to solve, it’s fair to say every teacher is looking forward to the day they can be with their students in person again, with desks closer together and faces free of masks.

“Teachers love their content, but the teachers aren’t here for the content,” Braa said. “And taking that interaction away is going to be mentally tough on the teachers.”

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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