Back to school in a pandemic: Opening plans vary in the lakes area

While many schools are operating with a hybrid system, a few will have in-class learning this school year.

Mike Gindorff's human biology class, wearing masks and sitting desks apart for social distancing, study their books Thursday, Sept. 3, at Crosby-Ironton High School. Pictured are Hayley Hanson (front, left), Bella Sablan (front, right), Karli Nixon (back, left), teacher Mike Gindorff, Jacob Oney and Emma Stokman. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

It’s not typical, but it’s here — the 2020-21 school year.

While some students get ready to board the big yellow bus, others prepare to stay home and learn in the comfort of pajamas at their kitchen tables.

It’s sure to be a school year like no other in a year like no other.

Those who roam the halls of school will do so at a distance from their peers, clad in facemasks and likely never far from hand sanitizer.

Some have already started and seem, so far, to be making the best of an unusual situation.


After the Minnesota Department of Education gave schools leeway on how best to teach their students this year, administrators each put their own unique plans together to fit the needs of their communities. Here’s a look at lakes area schools.


About 85 Aitkin students chose remote learning this year, while the rest will attend in-person classes every day.

Teachers will all use the learning management system Canvas to deliver their lessons, which is a change from last spring’s distance learning. Superintendent Dan Stifter said a parent survey showed there were too many different systems used last year, creating challenges for students and families.

For remote learners, some instructions will be delivered via livestream, while others will be recorded and posted for them to watch on their own time. As internet connectivity is an issue from students, Stifter said, their schedules and learning formats may look a little different. Various businesses, though, have opened up their Wi-Fi for students to use if they need it.

All students will have devices this year, with those in kindergarten through fifth grade getting iPads and sixth graders getting MacBook Airs. Older students had their own devices already. Though the iPads are on backorder and may not arrive before classes start, Stifter said he still feels ready.

“I feel like we’ve done all the planning we can and until we know how it works and how things go, there’s not a whole lot more we can do,” he said.

Stifter just asks everyone to have patience, calmness and a little grace.

“Every aspect of this is new,” he said, “and we’re all just doing the best we can to keep kids safe and provide a good education.”



A hybrid learning plan at Brainerd Public Schools will see students in kindergarten through fifth grade in person, while older students will attend in-person classes two days a week and do distance learning the other three days.

In-person days will be shortened for all students to allow for cleaning and time for teachers who need to reach distance learners to do so.

Students in grades 6-8 will attend either Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday, with Wednesdays being distance learning days for all. Those who are home will have a synchronous schedule, though, meaning they will watch on live classes as they happen in the buildings. This way, if students do have to transition back and forth between learning models, they will still have a set schedule, Superintendent Laine Larson said.

As of Sept. 2, 1,095 students had chosen distance learning out of about 6,400.

“I feel like we have the right plan,” Larson said.

No matter what the year throws at them, those at Brainerd Public Schools are going to make lemonade out of the lemons they have.

“And honestly, I really feel like we have made something really positive and really wonderful out of the lemons that have been thrown at us,” she said. “And so we feel really good about all three models and that we’re ready to ensure the safety of our kids.”

Larson said she cannot thank school staff, board members and the community enough for their partnership in developing a plan for this school year.


“Not that it’s not going to have a few glitches here and there, but I really feel positive that we’re ready,” she said.


School is already in session in Crosby-Ironton, with classes starting Monday, Aug. 31, due to ongoing construction projects.

“It’s been going great,” Superintendent Jamie Skjeveland said Tuesday, Sept. 1. “Our teachers are upbeat. Our kids came in here yesterday and today, and they’re excited to be back in school.”

The hybrid model looks similar to Brainerd’s, with students in kindergarten through sixth grade attending in person Monday-Thursday, and older students coming two days a week. Seventh through 12th graders will attend either Monday and Wednesday or Tuesday and Thursday. Skjeveland said that plan seemed to work best because of how many Fridays will be days off this year. In some circumstances, though, teachers may meet with students if they feel it’s necessary, especially with special needs students.

About 15% of students started out in the distance learning model, though Skjeveland said a few asked to switch to in person the first couple days, which the district allowed.

Staff learned a lot from last spring’s distance learning, Skjeveland said, and will work this year to make everything as easy on families as possible and not heavily rely on parents to aid with instruction.

“We want to reduce or eliminate the parents’ perception that it’s their job to provide instruction to their children,” he said.

A positive of the new format Skjeveland noted is the teachers’ ability to be flexible and tailor lessons to specific students and their individual needs.


“There’s just a real energy that’s exciting in the Crosby-Ironton School District,” he said, “and we’re looking forward to making a great year for our students.”


Crosslake Community School students will be back in person, with just a small percentage choosing the distance learning option.

With classrooms normally capped at 19 students, Executive Director Cliff Skagen said they will be even smaller this year with a couple kids from each room choosing distance learning.

Lessons for those distance learners will be planned out much better than last spring, Skagen said, when there wasn’t much time to prepare.

“When we started in March it was emergency learning and emergency teaching,” he said.
“So now they gave us a lot of time to plan, our lessons are significantly different than teaching from an emergency perspective.”

Skagen said the in-person learners will have as much outdoor instruction as possible.

“I feel very good about it,” he said of the first day. “Our teachers are excited, our kids are excited, our parents are excited. There’s always some caution just because parents are sending their kids and it’s a little bit unfamiliar in this time. But for most part people are very excited.”

Lake Region Christian

Classes are also in session at Lake Region Christian School in Baxter, and they look very similar to years past. The only difference is an increased enrollment.


“Most families were just looking for consistency,” Principal Steve Ogren said, referencing the various different models used throughout other schools.

Enrollment jumped to 265 students this year — about an 18% increase over last year. Ogren said they had to close enrollment three weeks before school started, when they would normally accept students right up until the first day.

“In order to keep everybody safe and allow us enough room for social distancing and all that, we wanted to keep it at a manageable number,” he said. “We feel 265 is very safe.”

Higher enrollment is a good problem, of sorts, to have, though Ogren said he wished it were for reasons other than a pandemic.

“So far so good,” he said. “We’re very pleased with how the year started.”

Little Falls

It’s all in person at Little Falls Community Schools, with about 15% of students choosing either distance or hybrid learning.

To create flexibility, students can create their own hybrid learning plan by working with teachers and principals to determine how many days a week they will attend classes in person.

“We kind of wanted to provide that option for parents and students who want to come back to school but maybe are still a little anxious about being here every single day,” Superintendent Stephen Jones said. “... And quite frankly, that’s the way we’ll carry forward even after COVID leaves us.”


About 7% chose hybrid learning, he said, while 8% chose complete distance learning.

Preparation will be the key difference between distance learning this year and last, Jones said, as staff had the whole summer to prepare lessons instead of trying to transition in-person classes to virtual. Staff got five extra professional development days over the summer to help them prepare.

“We heard so many times last spring from our staff — teachers and paras and cooks and custodians — ‘I’d do anything to have kids back in the building,’” Jones said. “And, well, that’s kind of our mantra. Now we’re going to have kids back in the building beginning Tuesday, so let’s be ready to welcome them and demonstrate that, indeed we are here because of the kids, and we can’t wait to have them back.”

Pequot Lakes

In Pequot Lakes, a hybrid learning plan means students in kindergarten through sixth grade will attend in person every day, and older students will be in the building two days a week and remote the rest of the time.

“Flex Fridays” will allow some secondary students to attend in person for electives, interventions and enrichment activities.

About 20% of the roughly 1,800 students at Pequot chose distance learning. While all teachers will use the Schoology system, the distance learning format will look differently depending on grade level and class, Superintendent Chris Lindholm said.

Kindergarten through fourth grade distance learners will have teachers dedicated just to them, while those in other grade levels may have livestreamed classes or pre-recorded lessons.

“We learned loud and clear that our students do need some synchronous face-to-face time with their teachers and rhythm that makes sense,” Lindholm said. “Those routines are really important for students and for staff. So into our system now for this year, we’ve built out those routines to try to ensure that we’re providing that rhythm for students and families.”

High school students will have an adaptive schedule, meaning they’ll have four or five learning blocks each day instead of seven periods. They will sign up for their learning blocks at the beginning of the week, choosing when to attend each lesson.

“I’m excited to have kids here, and I’m really grateful we’re working in a district where we can and our rates are low enough where we can have students here,” Lindholm said. “... As different as it will be, as hard as it will be to wear a mask all day long and do all those kinds of things, we’re just excited to see kiddos and have them back in our classrooms and in our hallways.”


Pierz students will attend in person classes, with about 85-90 students choosing distance learning.

Some calendar adjustments were made this year to give teachers an extra workshop day and another longer weekend in January between semesters.

Elementary students will have teachers specifically dedicated to distance learning, while those in fifth through 12th grade will attend synchronous Zoom classes along with their in-person peers. Classrooms are equipped with cameras and microphones for that purpose.

Gymnasiums will be used for lunch periods to allow students to spread out, and there will be more lunch periods for secondary students.

The district developed a mobile app for contactless pickup and dropoff. Parents can check in virtually and have paraprofessionals attend to the students.

“We’re trying to make it so it still feels like school but also trying to remind people that the goal is to take care of ourselves, and the goal is to obviously wear your mask and social distance and do the things that allow us to keep going,” Superintendent George Weber said.

Weber is grateful to parents and the community for being so supportive and to staff for spending so much extra time over the summer developing the plan so that students can be in the buildings.

“Every month we gain is a valuable month,” he said. “The longer we keep it going, the more relationships we build. If it ever does come down to having to distance learn again, at least we’ll be in a position where teachers and children know each other very well, and that’s the only way it can work.”


All grade levels in Pillager will attend in person as well, with about 120 students choosing distance or hybrid learning.

A parent survey, Superintendent Mike Malmberg said, showed about 90% of families wanted to be back in person. But if students opt to come in just a few days a week, staff will accommodate that.

Every student will have a device this year, and the distinct invested more than $400,000 into technology for staff. Interactive TVs, cameras, wireless mobile devices and mobile hotspots will assist students and staff with remote learning.

“We’ve made a big commitment technology-wise and training-wise for our staff, and I think we’re in a good place because of that — much better than we were last spring,” Malmberg said.

Distance learners are expected to log in and be present when their classes are happening, which Malmberg said should help with engagement and accountability. All teachers will use the same management system to promote consistency throughout the district.

Pillager lost some students to private school and homeschooling, which is a little concerning, Malmberg said, but it’s something the district will work through.

“Overall I think we’re excited to be back in person,” he said, “and trying to be as normal as possible, and hopefully we can be as normal as possible as long as possible.”

Pine River-Backus

Under a hybrid plan, Pine River-Backus students in kindergarten through sixth grade will attend classes in person, while seventh through 12th graders will learn remotely.

“We had really heard from our parents and our students that they wanted interaction with the staff. They wanted to be connected,” Superintendent Jonathan Clark said.

As a first-year superintendent coming off his previous position as principal at Riverside Elementary School in Brainerd, Clark said COVID-19 has played an interesting role in getting settled, especially when it comes to meeting face-to-face — or, rather, mask-to-mask. Instead of focusing on the education itself, he said more time has been spent focusing on how to provide instruction.

About 73 out of the roughly 400 kindergarten through sixth grade students chose remote learning this year.

“We’re very proud of how many are coming in and also how many of them are choosing the distance learning,” Clark said. “We’ve lost a few kids from homeschool that have decided to go that route, but not many.”

Clark said he is feeling good about the new year but also concerned about things like a lack of Kindercamp for the district’s newest students.

“We’re sitting very optimistically — I’ll put it that way — in that we’re ready to adjust and modify as needed,” he said.


Staples-Motley students will start with just two days the first week to get everyone accustomed to changes but will be in person every day after that.

Superintendent Shane Tappe said very few families chose distance learning and he is thankful for the students who are coming back in person.

But for those who are staying home, the district ramped up its technology equipment with COVID-19 relief funds to assist in learning.

Tappe said he is amazed with his staff for the diligence in putting together a plan to create the best possible learning environment for students.

“When it comes down to it, our focus is on the kids, and that’s our No. 1 priority,” he said. “And we want to make sure we do that in a safe and appealing environment.”

But because circumstances could always change, Tappe asks the community to have flexibility and grace throughout the year.

“We’re just excited for an opportunity to move forward and get our kids back in our buildings,” he said. “We miss them.”

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at .

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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