Kitchen tables become workstations, backyards transform into gymnasiums, and houses now double as schools.

That’s the reality for students across the state — and many throughout the country — as schools shut their doors to help slow the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

Students and teachers in the Brainerd School District are now a week into their new normal of distance learning, which will continue until at least May 4. But Gov. Tim Walz said Thursday, April 2, students will likely wrap up the rest of the year from home.

The experience has not been without its challenges, but parents and teachers alike have praised school district leadership for helping the transition go as smoothly as possible.

“We’ve been so lucky that our district and Lowell has been such an easy transition,” Lowell Elementary School parent Kaycie Tohm said during a phone interview Wednesday, April 1. “... I can’t even fathom the time and energy and effort that they all have had to do on their end to make it as easy for us.”

As both a teacher and parent, Kristina Olson said it’s great to see everyone — district staff, students and parents — come together to make distance learning successful.

“Our principal has been a great leader, and it really took a team effort. I can tell you that,” she said.

Olson works with some of the district’s youngest learners, as a first grade teacher at Garfield Elementary School and mom of girls in second grade and pre-kindergarten at Baxter Elementary.

Gemma Turner, a first grader in Kristina Olson's class at Garfield Elementary School enjoys hot cocoa as starts on her school work from home with a little help from cat Smokey Monday, March 30.  Submitted Photo
Gemma Turner, a first grader in Kristina Olson's class at Garfield Elementary School enjoys hot cocoa as starts on her school work from home with a little help from cat Smokey Monday, March 30. Submitted Photo

She said communicating with her students again has been great during the past week.

“I really miss seeing their faces and giving them a hug and that hands-on teaching,” she said. “But just being able to connect with them virtually really has been wonderful.”

As Olson’s first graders shift to using Chromebooks for the bulk of their school work, she said the students seem to be adjusting well.

Essentially, daily routines for many teachers include posting video lessons to Google Classroom — a tool used districtwide — and then uploading assignments or activities for kids to react to the lesson. When it comes to skills like writing, Olson has her students use their Chromebooks to take pictures of their work to turn in. Google Hangout video chat, she added, helps her communicate with her kids in real time.

Lowell kindergarten teacher Cassara Tideman said her curriculum is similar, and she and Olson try to throw in some fun exercises as well, like outdoor scavenger hunts of sorts and Bingo boards with at-home activities.

“The hope is to motivate students to stay creative and active at home while tying in academic standards as well,” Tideman said in an email.

While sending out a morning message to her students, Olson tried to keep things fun and interesting one day by wearing a unicorn headband to earn some extra engagement points. She must be on the right track, as the parents of one student, Gemma Turner, said their daughter cannot contain her excitement every morning to start her day with hot cocoa and Olson’s morning message.

Tohm said her three kids — in first, third and fourth grades — have found their online assignments easily accessible and simple to follow without requiring a lot of additional help. The biggest challenge, she said, is being away from the classroom, as her kids all love school.

Jake, Jessa and Bailey Tohm dance together for some exercise while distance learning at home. Submitted photo
Jake, Jessa and Bailey Tohm dance together for some exercise while distance learning at home. Submitted photo

“They love their teachers, they love the staff … so it’s a struggle for them not having that direct contact,” she said. “But on the flip side of it, they are really enjoying the learning part of it with the distance learning because everything’s been clear.”

For Barb Gosch’s third grade son Carter, the first week of distance learning served as a good lesson in flexibility and accountability, teaching the 8-year-old how to handle his schoolwork largely by himself. The bell doesn’t ring at 8:10 every morning, beckoning the students to their desks. That lack of structure might be a challenge for some, Gosch said, but it has been beneficial for her son.

Gosch said she also enjoys seeing Carter chat and interact with his classmates through Google Hangout just as he would at school.

“I think that really, really helps with cutting the tension of being stuck at home with Mom all day,” she said.

Carter himself said he doesn’t mind being home and likes being able to do his own physical education activities but admitted he misses being with his friends every day and said he would probably rather be in the school building.

“You don’t have quite as many things to do on a daily basis,” he said. “And you kind of have to go with the flow. Things feel a little weird and not how they used to be.”

But, like Carter, many students are doing their best to adjust to the new situation. That’s certainly what Erin Karlgaard has seen with her third and fourth grade students in the Area Gifted and Talented Education program at Lowell. Expecting third and fourth graders to do all their work autonomously can be difficult, especially when many parents also have to work, too, she said. So Karlgaard checks in with her kids as much as possible to make sure they’re all grasping what they need to do.

Lowell fourth grade teacher Jessica Johnson feels similarly about her students as she does her best to prepare them for middle school next year.

“We’re trying to teach them that independence between helping them a lot but doing most of it independently,” she said, noting most of her students are doing well with emailing her any questions they have on their own.

As she prepares lessons, Johnson said she tries to maintain a balance between pushing the students to continue learning while also having compassion for the difficult situation some families are experiencing right now.

As a parent, Johnson said her third and fifth grade kids were nervous to begin their distance learning but settled into it fairly quickly once they got a handle on things.

“They’re a little bit more rejuvenated and excited because they’re having that interaction with people again,” she said.

Balancing schedules can be difficult, she added, with Johnson trying to teach while her kids do their own work. One positive, though, she said, is the kids have usually answered any questions they have on their own before she gets done working. At the same time, Johnson said she’s grateful for all the helpful and supportive parents, without whom distance learning would not go as smoothly.

While Gosch was impressed to learn how tech savvy her third grader is, teachers in the higher grade levels rely even more heavily on that skill for students to continue learning.

Lowell Elementary third grader Carter Gosch does math homework at home via distance learning. Submitted photo
Lowell Elementary third grader Carter Gosch does math homework at home via distance learning. Submitted photo

Angela Schultz teaches seventh and eighth grade math at Forestview Middle School and said the technology aspect hasn’t been much of an issue. That’s likely thanks to the middle school’s 1:1 technology initiative implemented at the beginning of the school year, providing each student with a personal Chromebook.

That 1:1 initiative extends to students at the high school as well, and Brainerd High School English and speech teacher Wendy Vandeputte said she enjoys having the technological capabilities to create videos for her students, who can then look back on them if they miss something or have questions.

But with the students now being off campus, Forestview media specialist Chris Kelly said there were a few technical bugs to work out the first couple days, like login and internet connectivity issues.

And for some teachers who don’t use as much technology in their classroom on a daily basis, Kelly said there has been a learning curve. But many of the teachers she heard from said they are glad they’ve been able to learn new skills.

Kelly also praised the district’s technology department for staying on top of everything through the numerous changes.

For Schultz, it’s not technology that’s difficult but being able to individually help all of her more than 125 students each day. That’s how Vandeputte feels as well.

“Right now it’s figuring out who is going to need the most support and how I’m going to best be able to reach different students,” Vandeputte said.

But luckily, with most of the school year already gone by, Schultz said she was able to build relationships with her students and learn about all their different needs before making this transition.

“This has been an integral part of our success,” she said in an email Thursday, April 2.

And on an even more positive note, Schultz said the distance learning transition has required the students to become advocates for themselves and helped them to be independent learners.

Though Vandeputte feels her students are going to do OK with the distance learning, the uncertainty, she said, is exhausting, especially without having the usual level of energy brought on by a physical classroom full of kids.

“I try to stay upbeat, but I’m very, very sad just for the seniors,” she said. “I had two classes of seniors that I’ve gotten so close to, and it’s hard not seeing them, and … I’m not sure when I will get to see them face-to-face next.”

Despite all the lingering unknowns, teachers are doing their best to connect with students through this unprecedented period and hope it won't be too long before they are all back together.



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