Higher than expected distance learning numbers mean two area schools will modify their schedules to give teachers more time to accommodate all their students.

Roughly three weeks into school, Aitkin and Pillager — where most students were attending in-person classes every day — announced new schedules consisting of shortened class days for some and added remote distance learning days for others.

The changes are not due to positive COVID-19 cases, and neither school had reported any cases as of Friday, Sept. 25.


Students in Aitkin learning in person will be dismissed 40 minutes early beginning Oct. 5, the school board decided at its last meeting Sept. 21.

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The change, Superintendent Dan Stifter said in a letter to families Tuesday, Sept. 22, is due to increased time needed to prepare and deliver instruction to students in the dual model system of in-person and remote learning. The new schedule will run through the rest of the semester.

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Staff will use the extra time to build lessons and identify needs and challenges for all students. It will also provide time for staff to connect with remote students and families. As the first semester progresses, the school board will evaluate the plan and decide how to proceed for the second semester.

“With our remote learning numbers where they’re at, we’re finding just the workload for staff is something they weren’t going to be able to maintain just due to time and everything. So that’s why we’re making the shift,” Stifter said during a phone interview Friday.

Stifter reported the week before classes started about 85 students chose distance learning. Friday, he estimated the district was up to about 125-130, with some families making last-minute decisions right before and during the first week of school.

Numbers also continue to fluctuate with students being extra cautious with staying home when sick, getting tested for COVID-19 when any symptoms arise or being in contact with potentially ill individuals, Stifter said.

Each class period at Rippleside Elementary School will be adjusted to allow for students to be dismissed at 2:20 p.m. each day. Buses will leave at 2:30 p.m. each day, which is also when parent pickup will begin, and walkers will leave the building. Child care options will be available through Kids Club. Contact Lara Parkin in the Community Education office at 218-927-7736 for further details.

Aitkin High School students will be dismissed at 2:40 p.m. each day and should leave the school by 2:50 p.m.

High school practices, group meetings and after school activities will not begin until after 3:30 p.m. Each building will create a plan for students involved with after school activities. If coaches or advisers are not teachers or paraprofessionals and are available before 3:30 p.m., they can start practices earlier if it works into their schedules. Coaches and advisers will share information with their students.

Stifter thanked students, families and staff in his letter for their continued support and patience throughout all the changes this year. Overall, he said Friday the first three weeks of the school year have gone really well.

“Our students have been great about just being back and wanting to be involved and be part of school. Our staff has worked tremendously hard meeting needs and doing what they need to do in our new routines and our new schedules that we have,” he said. “... A week before school started if you had told me it would go this smooth, I would’ve taken it in a heartbeat.”


In Pillager, two elementary teachers became distance learning only teachers starting Thursday, Sept. 24, and secondary students will begin distance learning Oct. 7.

This shift, Superintendent Michael Malmberg said in a letter to families Tuesday, aims to give staff more time to deal with various challenges presented this year, including:

  • Learning new technology,

  • Communicating with in-person and remote students,

  • Preparing multiple lessons and videos for both learning scenarios,

  • Deep cleaning of school facilities, and

  • Remediation opportunities for struggling students.

One elementary teacher making the jump to distance learning was a recently hired long-term substitute who was helping out as needed. That person will work with third and fourth grade distance learners.

The other is a first grade teacher who transitioned from being in the classroom to working with remote students in kindergarten, first and second grades. The students who were in that teacher’s class in person were spread out among the other first grade rooms, which Malmberg said there was room to do because of more distance learners than expected. Parents were notified of the change before it happened.

The week before school started Malmberg said about 120 students had chosen distance or hybrid learning. Now that number is up to about 200.

Beginning Monday, students in sixth through 12th grades will work remotely on Wednesdays and attend classes in person the other four days. They will remain on the same schedule and be expected to log into each class at its appointed time each day. Class periods may be shorter, though.

Students who need extra help may be able to come in and meet with teachers one-on-one on Wednesdays, which will also be reserved for individualized education program meetings for special education students. Having those meetings Wednesdays, Malmberg said, may make it easier for multiple teachers to attend.

“(It’s) basically to help with communication for teachers and kids in distance learning and workload concerns, and there was just too many things to try to get done,” Malmberg said of the shift during a phone interview Friday. “And then also to help us really do a deep cleaning of those middle school and high school rooms. We were getting them clean, but we want to do another deep level of cleaning in those rooms once a week.”

Malmberg believes these changes will enable staff to better educate all students and may help the district continue with in-person classes as long as possible.

“I think overall, kids are glad to be here. I think staff is more than excited to be here,” he said Friday. “I think if we can get some of those other kinks worked out where we can try to do a better job for both distance learners and kids that are here, and trying to help our staff, I think … as long as we can stay in person, those will all help.”

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