Leaders: Teachers ‘don’t want the rug ripped out' as district stresses local COVID safety

With students returning for in-person classes, Brainerd Public Schools administrators stressed the importance of all community members following COVID-19 guidelines so students can stay in the building for the remainder of the year.

Baxter Elementary School Principal Tammy Stellmach dons a face shield Monday, Feb. 8, while updating school board members on how elementary staff and students are feeling about returning to in-person classes. The meeting was livestreamed via YouTube. Screenshot / Theresa Bourke

Excitement to have students back in the classroom was the overwhelming message from staff at the Brainerd School Board meeting Monday, Feb. 8, along with a plea to the public to help keep things that way.

With sixth through 12th graders set to transition from distance learning to a modified in-person model Tuesday, Feb. 16, all students who so choose will be back within the physical walls of their schools.

Younger students transitioned back to in-person classes in phases over the past three weeks.

A lot of behind-the-scenes preparation happened to get the buildings ready for the transitions, and administrators are grateful to the rest of the staff for the hard work and long hours put in. Principals from each level — elementary, middle and high school — heaped praises on their colleagues and on parents and families Monday when providing the board with updates.

Elementary school

Baxter Elementary Principal Tammy Stellmach — who represented the district’s six elementary schools — said there has been a lot of out-of-the-box thinking this year and many staff members who have taken on different roles than they’re used to.


“It’s been tough,” she said. “I don’t think you’d find too many staff at any level that would tell you it has not been a hard year.”

Teachers and paraprofessionals are working harder than ever, yet learning gaps are wider than normal after moving to distance learning last March. Fortunately, though, the smaller class sizes also forced by COVID-19 mean, in some cases, students can get more individualized attention from teachers.

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Elementary staff have also had to deal with building construction and moving. Staff at Baxter, Nisswa and Harrison moved belongings into new learning spaces at the beginning of the year, while those at Lowell, Riverside and Garfield dealt with ongoing construction.

“I could not be more proud of our elementary staff,” Stellmach said. “They have been resilient, they have been flexible, they have come to the table with smiles on their face and a can-do attitude.”

Student attitudes and positivity have surpassed staff expectations as well. They, too, are resilient and flexible, Stellmach said.

“They are happy to be learning,” she added. “They are thrilled to be back in school in the elementaries, but I tell you what, they were hardworking troopers when we were forced to go from the in-person to the distance learning model, and they have done a phenomenal job.”

Kids having to keep masks on all day was a concern at the beginning of the year — especially with the youngest students — but Stellmach said it has been a non-issue.

“Overall, all things considered, we’re having the best year possible given the circumstances," she said.


RELATED: Middle, high schoolers to return to the classroom

Middle school

Forestview Middle School Principal Jon Anderson talks during the Brainerd School Board meeting Monday, Feb. 8, about all of his students returning to in-person classes. The meeting was livestreamed via YouTube. Screenshot / Theresa Bourke

Forestview Middle School Principal Jon Anderson said his staff have two main focus points this year — how to keep students engaged and how to build and maintain positive relationships no matter the learning model.

That means gym teachers doing virtual workouts with students, teachers hosting hourly Google Meets sessions and paraprofessionals and special education instructors putting every second of their schedule to use. That means media center staff continuing to promote literacy with a library checkout bin outside the building, the music department setting up virtual concerts and teachers devising creative science, technology, engineering and math projects.

RELATED: Low enrollment drives Brainerd Public Schools budget deficit
Anderson gave a shoutout to Director of Technology Sarah Porisch for all her work over the past year and the great strides the district has made regarding technology since last March. He also noted the lengths teachers have gone to in making sure content aligns with district assessments and state standards throughout distance learning. He gave kudos to Director of Teaching and Learning Tim Murtha for the role he played in that effort.

“I’m very impressed with my staff,” Anderson said. “They have risen to the challenge with everything with engaging kids.”

High school


Brainerd High School Principal Andrea Rusk thanks staff, students and parents for their flexibility throughout the year during the Brainerd School Board meeting Monday, Feb. 8. The meeting was livestreamed via YouTube. Screenshot / Theresa Bourke

During challenging times it’s easy to focus on things that need improvement, Brainerd High School Principal Andrea Rusk said, but staff has instead done everything they could to make the year successful.

“They have been asked to do things that they’ve never been asked to do,” she said.

And it goes beyond just teachers. It’s custodians, cooks, paraprofessionals, clerical staff and everyone employed at the district, Rusk said.

She also thanked parents, who have always been flexible and respectful, even amid their frustrations this year.

RELATED: School staff ‘thrilled’ as students return to the classroom
Both Rusk and Stellmach thanked the community again for their support of the 2018 bond referendum, as construction projects mean new and improved learning spaces and — in some cases — extra space sorely needed to social distance during the pandemic.

High school students will use the first week back as a transition period as they learn to navigate the newly constructed portions of the building and acclimate to new safety guidelines like directional traffic and social distancing policies in common areas.

At the end of her report, Rusk confidently said both prom and an in-person graduation ceremony are going to happen this year, with more details to come later.


It takes a village

Staff members want students to continue coming to school through the end of the year, but it will take a community effort to be able to do so, they said.

“The one thing I heard echoed by staff today is that they’re so ready to do this, but they just don’t want the rug ripped out again,” Assistant Superintendent Heidi Hahn said. “They want to be able to get in and stay in, and that’s where it’s going to take all of us.”

RELATED: More COVID leave possible for Brainerd school employees
When the district received permission from the state to bring all the students back, Superintendent Laine Larson said officials told them to stress the importance of community compliance with COVID-19 guidelines, like wearing masks when in public, social distancing and avoiding large gatherings.

Distance learning

Under state mandates, districts must provide a distance learning option for students through the end of the school year, an effort Larson said Brainerd Public Schools continues to be committed to.

“They’re still our kids, and we’re still giving great education to our kids even through the distance learning model,” she said.

Of the 505 students at Baxter Elementary, Stellmach said 47 were distance learning as of Monday. The most Baxter students distance learning at one time this year was 62-65, she said.

RELATED: Bringing back 5th grade: Brainerd school admins discuss in-person learning challenges
As of Monday, Anderson said there were 75 middle school students making the switch from full distance learning to in-person learning and 15 switching from in-person to distance learning.

Rusk did not have concrete numbers for the high school but said her students have fluctuated a little more than their younger peers, as many students have opted to stay in distance learning so they can retain jobs through the pandemic. Some high schoolers are working 25 or more hours a week, she said.


THERESA BOURKE may be reached at or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at .

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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