Back to online class for public schools

Distance learning still frustrating despite improvements

Burroughs Community School
Students in Tami Tripp’s kindergarten class at Burroughs Community School got to know their classmates as they met on Google Meet during their first morning back at school on Sept. 10.

The first day of kindergarten in Tami Tripp’s class at Burroughs Community School was full of stories, show-and-tell and nervous energy — with each student learning in their own home.

“It’s so fun to see your smiles, friends,” Tripp told the students via Google Meet. “You’re going to have an amazing day.”

Public school students in Southwest Minneapolis — forced into remote learning because of COVID-19 — experienced a first week of school like no other.

Teachers, parents and students said there were some technology issues and that distance learning has been more challenging for the youngest learners, some of whom need constant supervision to complete their schoolwork.

While they said it has been a smoother transition than in the spring, they’re eager for students to return to in-person classes and are prepared to make changes to the distance-learning program as issues arise.

“We just have to be ready to make shifts,” said Holly Kleppe, principal of the pre-K-8 Jefferson Community School in Lowry Hill East. “We put our best thinking forward in a schedule [and] ways to serve the students, and we just have to be really good listeners now to see how we’re implementing and what we can do better.”

Learning the technology

Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) waited until Gov. Tim Walz’s announcement that schools could chart their own path before deciding to return to distance learning in the fall. (The teachers union and other district workers had advocated for the remote start.)

But district leaders also vowed that distance learning would be better than in the spring — when, with limited planning time, teachers cobbled together lessons and kids worked independently.

Perhaps the biggest change from the spring has been the implementation of real-time classes. That has required district and school leaders to ensure that all students have either an iPad or a Google Chromebook and reliable internet service.

The goal is for more kids to participate in online learning than last spring, when about 20% of high school students and 25% of middle school students did not submit schoolwork.

Schools distributed devices at back-to-school events held in the first week of September and the last week of August, and teachers have made calls to students to ensure the technology was working properly. (It’s unclear how many students still don’t have the technology needed to participate in classes.) Some schools have distributed headphones to make the remote-learning experience more pleasant for households with multiple kids and materials for independent work.

Kleppe said a big focus early in the year will be on ensuring kids know how to use the technology (including, crucially, the “mute” button).

“Sometimes [teachers] will do the same lesson multiple days in a row, because you’re building up that stamina for kids, too,” she said.

The week before the start of classes, Washburn High School helped its ninth-graders ease into the building with a socially distanced in-person orientation event. The new students went around the school’s outdoor track to learn school cheers, hear from their new teachers and support staff and meet fellow students.

Some of the advice — “You don’t want to be the one senior in your gym class” and “Take your freshman year classes seriously” — was universal for any freshman year. But other tidbits — “You’re going to have to start checking your email more regularly” — were unique to the COVID-19 era.

Afterward, the ninth-graders said they were nervous but excited for the new school year, even though it was online. Some said they expected to do well online and others said they are looking forward to the eventual in-person return.

“I feel like I can do better in person,” Muntaha Mohamud said, adding that she thinks online high school will be fun and that she’s excited to meet new people.

Anthony Middle School
Staff at Anthony Middle School tried to make the first day of school one to remember, despite having to hold remote classes. Submitted photos

‘All still welcome’

As the week wore on, some parents reported that the adjustment became smoother.

Paula Luxenberg, who has two kids at Armatage Montessori School, said her fourth-grader has no problem with the technology but that her first-grader needed a lot of support on the first day.

She said she imagines virtual class would be tough for the youngest kids who don’t have parents to guide them.

Tyrice Edgeworth, the parent of a third-grader at Kenny Community School, described the first days of distance learning as a “nightmare” after facing a series of frustrating tech problems.

He said the transition to Google Classroom from the online platform Seesaw, which was used in second grade, has been difficult. And during the first week of school, the code that was supposed to be used to see the online gym class didn’t work, forcing his son to miss the class.

Opinion about the new distance-learning setup has been mixed among the 12th-graders at Southwest High School, though several said the technology has been working well for them.

Gus Johnson said online learning has been pretty easy for him and that he likes the block schedule the school has implemented. (Students now have three 120-minute classes each day instead of six 55-minute classes.)

Deremer Rouser said that while virtual learning has been easier than in the spring, he’d still rather be meeting in person.

Southwest and other middle and high schools have also begun restarting some in-person extracurricular activities and transitioned others online. At Southwest, for example, auditions were held for a virtual musical and the soccer teams played Washburn for the “Sylvester Cup,” a trophy honoring John Sylvester, a beloved Minneapolis soccer coach who died in 2017 of ALS. (Washburn won the boys varsity match; Southwest won the girls.)

At Washburn, the football team began its fall training in preparation for the season, which has been postponed, and the debate team met for a virtual kickoff event.

Back at Burroughs, Tripp’s class bobbed around the screen on their first day, many with their parents sitting next to them. They showed off the red-colored items that Tripp had asked them to present and learned how to properly hold a scissors. (“It’s a little tricky to show on camera,” Tripp said.)

The class also listened quietly as Tripp read a story called “All Are Welcome” about a diverse group of kids and families in a typical day of school.

“Our class might look a little different because we’re all on the computer here,” she said, “but we’re all still welcome.”