by Mike Knaak
Three weeks into distance learning, Sartell-St. Stephen school board members and administrators focused on how the effort was going at the April 20 board meeting.
Principals joined the meeting to update board members on what was working and what wasn’t working since Gov. Tim Walz ordered schools closed last month to limit the spread of Covid-19.
Principals reported on survey results sent to high school students and parents at the middle and elementary schools.
While the schools are shut down, kindergarten through second-grade students are receiving packets while older students are using iPads and MacBooks to connect with teachers and complete assignments over the internet using the Schoology platform.
Principals and board members stressed the need to communicate often with parents and students, as well as the community in general, about expectations and plans.
Those responding to the surveys generally provided positive comments but the results focused on several areas to improve.
At the high school, Principal Brenda Steve said about half the 509 respondents said they “liked” the distance learning process. But some students wanted more live interaction. Student check in with teachers each day and more than 90 percent said they had no trouble with internet connections.
Helping students interact with teachers is one area for improvement, Steve said. Twenty-three percent of responding students said they were unsure of how to ask questions and 41 percent reported anxiety asking questions.
“They are not engaging the way they would if a teacher was sitting next to them,” Steve said.
The majority of students reported spending 30-60 minutes per class.
All the principals agreed that they expected to make adjustments as distance learning became a routine rather than a novelty.
At the middle school, Principal Laura Arndt said the majority of the 550 responses indicated the amount of work was just about right while an equal number was split between the work was too easy or too hard. Arndt said most student were spending between 25-35 minutes per class, about what teachers expected.
At the elementary schools, about half the parents responded to the surveys. At Pine Meadow, Principal Sara Nelson said 90 percent of parents responded that the schedule is working for their students. Oak Ridge Principal Jason Mielke reported similar positive results and added that about 10 percent of parents would like more live sessions. He said teachers are focusing on working with different family situations such as essential workers and parents working at home. Plans call for more virtual meetings.
The student representative at the meeting was Courtney Snoberger and board members asked her to comment on distance learning at the high school. She echoed the survey responses about connecting with teachers but also creating ways for students to interact because they are not together every day.
Board member Lesa Kramer asked Snoberger what she’s learned that will be useful in the future. Snoberger said she’s learned to “be able to teach myself. This teaches us if we have a problem I can figure it out by myself. Moving forward I will be better at problem solving.”
Board member Patrick Marushin asked about attendance. Arndt said that at the middle school, the number of students who don’t check in is about half what it would be on a normal school day. Steve reported similar attendance at the high school. But both principals said that while attendance is one metric, they are also concerned about students completing assignments and making progress.
Mielke said there’s a “handful” of students struggling with attendance and the “quality of work isn’t what we’d usually see.”
School officials across the state are waiting to hear what Walz will decide to do after this current stay-at-home order ends on May 3. Superintendent Jeff Schwiebert said he hopes the governor makes an announcement this week about what will happen at schools starting May 4.
Kramer asked about what she called “the elephant in the room – graduation.”
Steve said seniors are meeting weekly to come up with options for graduation if the traditional ceremony ins’t possible. Ideas include having the event at the football field with just students, having parents attend in the stands with appropriate distance and doing a recorded ceremony. Students were asked if they would be around until the end of June if graduation has to be postponed.
Board member Pam Raden described the situation as “gut-wrenching. What people want to hear is we’re trying to come up with creative ideas.”
Business manager Joe Prom said the district continues to serve 1,800-1,900 hundred meals a day from the middle school pickup site. Three buses are delivering meals to families that can’t drive to the school.