Though Minnesota schools are only officially closed through March 27, local administrators are operating under the assumption buildings will likely stay closed down beyond that date.

This isn’t the outcome Brainerd Public Schools administrators were hoping to see, but they are working through the challenges to prepare the district nonetheless.

“The challenge that we’re going to be faced with here is the challenge of sustaining relationships,” Director of Teaching and Learning Tim Murtha told school board members Monday, March 23. “It’s going to be the challenge of providing guaranteed viable curriculum, responding to student needs and doing so through the lens of distance.”

Murtha presented board members with his plan for distance learning, which will likely commence Monday, March 30, should schools remain closed.

Distance learning, he explained, if different from e-learning.

“We will still need paper and pencil. We will still need manipulatives — whiteboards and markers. All those things will still be part of it,” he said, adding elementary teachers will gather together math and other materials for students and make sure those go home with families before March 30.

Murtha said teachers should continue on with their previously scheduled lessons, starting where they left off March 13. The distance learning journey will likely not be easy, though, he added.

He encouraged teachers — especially elementary and middle school — to collaborate with colleagues in their grade levels.

“As a team, identify the priority standards and benchmarks which must be fulfilled next in your teaching,” he said. “... As a team, identify how you will assess it, and as a team develop learning activities that students may do at home. The key here is ‘as a team.’”

With elementary teachers having to prepare materials for several different content areas — math, science, social studies, reading, etc. — they should be able to delegate different subjects and tasks to their fellow teachers.

The district will provide teachers with a framework to organize their instruction and give families suggestions for daily schedules. But just as each family’s situation differs, so will each student’s day.

Parents are not expected to teach their children during this time, but they will need to help, perhaps more than before.

“We're going to need a little extra help with some of the little ones having a computer turned on for them,” Murtha said. “We're going to need a little extra help in chasing down a 12 year old who sees that it's spring outside, and they may know that you have to go to work in 10 minutes and are being clever.”

School district staff members wait in the hallway for their turns to present, watching the school board meeting on a television Monday, March 23. The school district practiced recommended social distancing guidelines amid the COVID-19 pandemic, keeping everyone at least 6 feet apart and allowing no more than 10 people in the board room at a time. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch
School district staff members wait in the hallway for their turns to present, watching the school board meeting on a television Monday, March 23. The school district practiced recommended social distancing guidelines amid the COVID-19 pandemic, keeping everyone at least 6 feet apart and allowing no more than 10 people in the board room at a time. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

Perhaps the biggest challenge, Murtha said, will be student accountability and assessment.

“In terms of accountability, we’re going to have to set that aside just a little bit and focus on formation and growth for a while because assessing kids at a distance is extremely difficult,” he said. “And we’re going to have to work through some trial and error on a couple things.”

He urged parents and teachers to stay focused on their children’s learning, noting the most important thing right now is to get students back in the game — asking questions, exploring ideas and learning.

Special education will be challenging, too, Murtha said. As special education teachers normally take an individualized approach to each student’s learning, they will likely have an especially difficult time doing so through distance learning.

“Some of them need the manipulatives,” Murtha said of special education students. “Some of them need to have conversations daily. Some of them just need routine back. … So the special-ed teachers are building things for them for both social emotional learning and content.”

Murtha thanked community members for their continued support and patience throughout this unusual time. They should, however, prepare for a long journey and the possibility of students not returning to the classroom for the rest of the year, even though that is definitely not what staff would like to see, Murtha said.

“Trust me, we miss our kids. We want them back, and we want them back as soon as possible,” he said. “We’re not going through toilet paper, we’re going through Kleenex. We miss the kids. And as the kids come to us, whether it’s for locker cleanout or pick up computers, and the teachers need to keep social distance, yeah there’s not enough Kleenex for that. That is very hard on both child and teacher.”

Chromebooks

To make distance learning possible, students at Forestview Middle School all picked up Chromebooks last week to use at home. High school students all already have their own Chromebooks after the implementation of a 1:1 technology initiative at the beginning of the school year.

Board members agreed Monday to also provide elementary students with district Chromebooks. They agreed on a 1:2 approach, meaning households with more than one elementary student will receive one Chromebook for every two students. That amounts to 1,000 devices for elementary students. Sarah Porisch, director of technology, said she and her leadership team felt middle and high school students have enough work to do on their Chromebooks that they should not have to share devices with younger siblings.

At $282 per device, the total cost for the devices is $282,000, which will come from the district’s capital fund budget. Superintendent Laine Larson said the board previously froze it’s capital fund for this year because of the many ongoing building projects and those associated costs. But there is more than enough money in that capital fund, Larson said, to cover the cost of the Chromebooks without having to use the general fund.

Porisch also brought the board a proposal for a 1:1 plan for elementary students, meaning all K-4 students would get their own Chromebooks. The cost for that proposal was $433,716.

Larson said she spoke earlier Monday with elementary school principals, who believed a 1:2 plan would be sufficient for their students. Board members agreed to the lower cost option.

Chromebook pickup

Students at Riverside and Baxter elementary schools can pick up Chromebooks from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m Wednesday, March 25. Those at other elementary schools can pick their Chromebooks up between 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, March 27. The distribution will work the same as when parents picked up personal belongings.

Parents should read the Chromebook usage handbook, available at https://bit.ly/2xjePZ1, prior to pick up. A parent/guardian signature will be required upon pickup for every household. Copies of the signature page will be available upon pickup, but those who can print and sign it beforehand are encouraged to do so to speed up the process.

Internet access

Porisch said the district is working with CTC, T-Mobile and Charter to ensure all students and staff have reliable internet access for distance learning.

Of the 1,882 families who responded to the district’s recent student needs survey, 194 said their children do not have access to Wi-Fi without the use of a cellphone.

To help fill the gaps, CTC has developed free public Wi-Fi spots. All schools within the Brainerd School District — including Lincoln Education Center, Washington Educational Services Building and Brainerd Learning Center — are included in the public Wi-Fi locations. Users can pull up to any of the sites in their cars and connect to the “CTC WiFi” without having to get out of their cars.

CTC also offers public hotspots in Merrifield, Aitkin, Little Falls, Motley and other cities throughout the area. A full map of the locations is available at https://bit.ly/3bpauC4.

CTC and Charter Spectrum are also offering special deals for families in their coverage areas, Porisch said.

She added the district has T-Mobile hotspots from the buses that could be available for families in need as well, as the district is already paying for them.

The last resort would be for the district to pay for extra hotspots, which cost about $29 per month.

“We really believe that between CTC and Charter, we should be able to help out most of these families,” Porisch said.

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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.