After several concerns from parents, Brainerd school officials clarified the distance learning process this year and why it isn’t going exactly as planned.

Tim Murtha, director of teaching and learning, told school board members Sept. 28, the difference between synchronous scheduling and synchronous learning, which has caused some confusion with families so far this year.

Before school started, the board approved a hybrid learning plan, which allowed students in sixth through 12th grades to attend in-person classes two days a week and work remotely three days a week. The plan assured synchronous scheduling, which means each student will have the same teachers, classmates and overall schedule regardless of the learning model. This is not to be confused with synchronous learning, which means distance learning students are in class virtually at the same time their in-person peers are in the school building. The district purchased cameras and microphones with coronavirus relief funds earlier this year to allow for as much synchronous learning as possible.

The district has done well so far with synchronous scheduling, Murtha said, but faces unexpected challenges with synchronous learning.

While Murtha told board members at their last meeting while he would like to say distance learning plans are unfolding exactly as planned in August, that isn’t the reality.

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One of the biggest roadblocks thus far, he said, is with remote students unable or unwilling to join their classes when teachers schedule synchronous learning. This presents two challenges for teachers — needing time to prepare an additional instruction model and having to take time to track down students who aren’t participating.

Tim Murtha, director of teaching and learning at Brainerd Public Schools, addresses school board members during a meeting last year. Gabe Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch
Tim Murtha, director of teaching and learning at Brainerd Public Schools, addresses school board members during a meeting last year. Gabe Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch

In a phone interview Thursday, Oct. 8, Murtha said teachers who have synchronous classes with students online and in-person already have to prepare two instructional models.

Depending on the learning target — or what teachers are trying to teach — the methods may differ based on if students are there in person or there virtually.

A knowledge learning goal — dealing with ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers or facts that can be memorized, like the vowels of the English language — might not present big challenges, Murtha said.

Then there are reasoning, performance and skills targets, which can create additional challenges. A reasoning target, like mathematical operations, requires students to display critical thinking skills. Performance targets, Murtha said, could be like a physical education teacher requiring students to prove they can throw a ball correctly. That’s not something that can be assessed with a multiple choice test.

“Once you start trying to deliver learning and practicing and modeling relative to those learning types, it matters whether the kid is right there with you or the kid is watching on a screen,” Murtha said. “Once it becomes distance learning and they’re participating remotely, that gets a lot harder and you have to start tweaking and manipulating and flat out changing what you do.”

Sometimes it can be simple, like a physical education teacher uploading a video of himself throwing a ball and asking students to recreate it. Sometimes it can be more complicated, like when students in a foreign language class are asked to converse with one another. For distance learners, that can be challenging.

“We’re able to manage it. It’s not easy, but it just takes so much more time to prepare and think your way through,” Murtha said. “You really have to have a second activity prepared, at times, for the distance learning students.”

And if remote students don’t attend a class at the appointed time, the teacher then needs to prepare a third teaching method to engage those students. In some cases it’s younger students or those with special needs whose families have chosen distance learning as the best option for them but because of age or needed supports must have a parent or guardian present during distance learning. That means they may not be able to attend synchronous classes.

“You’re compounding the amount of work it takes a teacher to teach the same learning target,” Murtha said, noting the extra prep time needed may take away from teachers being able to prepare for synchronous classes.

He admitted the district may have underestimated how many students would choose distance learning this year but added about 25% of students in secondary grades are either not logging in when they’re supposed to or are not handing in assignments.

“A good teacher wants to go find that child and help that child back into the game,” Murtha said. “But it’s becoming, in some corners, overwhelming how much of that has to occur in order for us to move forward.”

Shortened school days were designed to help with some of these challenges by allowing teachers more prep time, but do not account for all the obstacles.

The district is working on solutions, though.

One tactic is clarifying the process on how to take attendance. Teachers are required to take attendance, but that can be more difficult with distance learning. They take in-person attendance at the beginning of the day but may have to update that at the end of the day after checking to see if remote students submitted any work. The district is employing building secretaries and principals to assist with both remote attendance and tracking down remote students with prolonged absences.

“And I don’t want to blame the kids,” Murtha said. “We don’t know whose fault it is. We just know the reality of a larger than expected portion of kids is not returning work to us or not connecting with us regularly.”

In younger grades, the district is employing more Title I interventionists — staff that helps students who need extra academic support — to help lessen the load on classroom teachers.

Murtha believes things are getting better, based largely on the fewer phone calls he’s been receiving compared to earlier in the year, but said staff and administrators continuously work to create the best possible learning environments.

“It is tough,” Murtha said, “but it’s tougher probably to be a parent, and it’s certainly tougher to be a teacher than it is to be the director of teaching and learning.”

In the majority of cases, Murtha added, concerns have been handled when parents are able to talk through the learning process in the context of their child.

“It’s one thing to read a plan or a policy that’s laid out in generality and sequences,” he said. “It’s another thing to be able to have a conversation … where we can talk to them in the context of their child’s learning needs.”

And when parents do have concerns, Murtha wants to remind them they should first contact their child’s teacher. If that does not resolve the issue, they should then go to the building principal and continue working up the chain of administrators to Murtha, Assistant Superintendent Heidi Hahn and eventually Superintendent Laine Larson if further assistance is needed.

“We don’t have a problem we can’t solve, given enough time to solve it,” Murtha told board members.



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