BAXTER — With schools closed across the state during the COVID-19 outbreak, parents and students in Brainerd and Baxter are flocking to district buildings to pick up personal belongings and technology devices as they prepare for the possibility of distance learning.

Forestview Middle School students picked up Chromebooks Thursday and Friday, so each student has their own device at home, should they need it to keep up with school work.

Principal Jon Anderson said the process was moving smoothly Thursday, March 19, as students and parents stopped in the gym for Chromebooks before venturing farther into the empty hallways to gather gym clothes, locker items and musical instruments. Staff members cleaned out lockers and placed everything in plastic bags for students to take.

“Community members and parents have been awesome,” Anderson said. “They’ve been very patient and understanding and supportive. And so it's just been a good atmosphere, everything considered.”

Students expressed mixed emotions about this “uncharted territory,” as Anderson referred to the situation. Some said they were enjoying the opportunity to sleep in and watch some more TV, while others, like sixth grader Lauren Yeager, weren’t thrilled about not having school.

“I want to see my friends,” Yeager said, adding she misses her science class as well. “We do hands-on learning, and we’re not going to be able to do that.”

Yeager has been accessing online learning resources at home though, to try to keep her mind busy. And at other times, she spends time outside getting fresh air with her dogs or baking in the kitchen.

Paraprofessional Jie Westphal gathers plastic bags containing locker items for Forestview Middle School students and parents to pick up Thursday, March 19, during the extended school closure. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Paraprofessional Jie Westphal gathers plastic bags containing locker items for Forestview Middle School students and parents to pick up Thursday, March 19, during the extended school closure. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Seventh grader Grace Schulz misses seeing her friends every day, too, as does her older sister Alix Peterson, who is a senior at Staples-Motley High School.

“I’m actually kind of sad,” Peterson said. “I miss my friends, and I’m afraid that graduation isn’t going to be normal. And I’ve worked my whole life for that, and I’ve just been looking forward to it, and it just might not be what I expected it to be.”

But the girls’ mom, Veronica Schulz, said she enjoys having them home and is taking the opportunity to make sure they’re well-versed in household chores, like emptying the dishwasher.

“We’re going to make it worthwhile,” Veronica Schulz said, “but we’re enjoying our time so far.”

Third grade student Kennedy Fomoso, who was along to pick up her older brother’s belongings, had mixed emotions.

“Kind of glad and sad,” she said when asked about not being in school — glad not to have to do school work for a couple of days, but sad not to see her friends.

But for Sarah Porisch, the district’s director of technology, this is a time to shine.

“We’re in our element right now,” she said. “Because this is what technology/IT people do. We problem solve, we think ahead. We like the busyness and the challenges.”

The district has been working on increased technology efforts for at least the last five years, when Porisch first started in the district. Now, she said it’s time to really dive in and see if their work pays off.

School district employee Audri Cockman sorts through bags of gym clothes for parents and students to pick up Thursday, March 19, at Forestview Middle School. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch.
School district employee Audri Cockman sorts through bags of gym clothes for parents and students to pick up Thursday, March 19, at Forestview Middle School. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch.

All high school students already have personal Chromebooks to use at home. Forestview students have them for in-school use but now signed waivers allowing them to bring the devices home. The next step, Porisch said, is to get devices in the hands of elementary students, as the district prepares for distance learning, should they need to take that step.

The school board plans to talk at its next meeting Monday night about getting a device in every household with elementary school-aged kids as well. Even if a household already has a middle or high school student with a Chromebook, Porisch said she would like separate devices for the younger students, so the older kids can still have their own. If a family has more than one elementary-aged student, that household would get one device to share.

Perhaps the biggest challenge Porisch and her technology team are facing, though, is access to Wi-Fi, which not everyone has right now.

“That’s probably the biggest concern, and I’ve been working with CTC and some other communications companies, so we have some ideas for people,” she said. “And as we move forward, we’re committed as a district to ensure that every household has a district-provided device available to them, and then that every household has the appropriate internet access to complete their distance learning if it ends up being required.”

Ryan Ward checks into Forestview Middle School Thursday, March 19, with son Wyatt and daughter Hadley in tow to pick up his son's Chromebook and other personal belongings while schools are closed. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Ryan Ward checks into Forestview Middle School Thursday, March 19, with son Wyatt and daughter Hadley in tow to pick up his son's Chromebook and other personal belongings while schools are closed. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Porisch praised the rest of her tech team for being so well-organized and the district leadership for remaining positive, optimistic and supportive throughout the whole process.

“What I’m really proud of is Brainerd isn’t just putting a Band-Aid on something,” she said. “This is stuff that we can use moving forward for everything, for a better education for our kids. So it’s pretty exciting actually, as long as everyone stays healthy.”

Likewise, Anderson said he feels good about the plans his teachers have in place for distance learning if the district has to implement that kind of a curriculum.

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THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.