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Rollercoaster year ends on high note for teachers, students

Teachers and parents expressed excitement at having students back for in-person classes and hope for a growing sense of normalcy.

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Students file into Garfield Elementary School Monday, Feb. 1. Elementary schools in the Brainerd School District welcomed their third and fourth grade students back Monday after having been in a distance learning model since November. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
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Uncertainty plagued parents, teachers and students in March 2020, when kids were sent home from school and told they would be distance learning for the time being.

As school officials hustled to get everything set up — technology, materials, internet connections — parents rearranged their schedules, and teachers revamped their lesson plans. No one knew how long school would be happening from home or what the next year would hold.

But after an irregular spring and a rollercoaster of a fall and winter, students proved their resiliency and are back in school, and their parents and teachers hope it’s for good.

“It’s just wonderful to have that energy of students back in the classroom,” Brainerd High School English teacher Wendy Vandeputte said during a phone interview March 4. “Those who are in school are really glad they can be here and doing so well with all of the changes.”

When the early stages of the pandemic forced distance learning last spring, Vandeputte was exhausted by the uncertain status of the school year and not having kids in the classroom to add much-needed energy to the day.

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Brainerd students started the 2020-21 school year in a hybrid model and ended up flip flopping between in-person and remote classes. They all moved to distance learning classes in November and remained there until January and February, when a phased reopening saw kids coming back in waves.

“I think the first day they were back I almost cried in two of my classes just because there were students up and moving,” Vandeputte said.

First grade Garfield Elementary teacher Kristina Olson was excited to get her students back, too, though she said distance learning went smoother this year opposed to last year because of the extra preparation time.

“We did a lot more live teaching with guided reading, and every day my first graders were up at 8:15 to join me for a morning meeting live on Google Hangouts,” Olson said. “And the majority of them were very involved, so it was completely different this year.”

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Students get off the bus Monday, Feb. 1, at Garfield Elementary School. Brainerd Public Schools welcomed third, fourth and fifth graders back to school for the first since November, when students went into a distance learning model. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Olson started the year with 17 students in person, but that number increased to 24 after the bout of distance learning.

Though various learning model transitions disrupted the school year, Olson said that’s something she knew at the beginning of the year would probably happen, so she focused on teaching her students the routine of Google Classroom and made sure to clear up the challenges from last year.

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From a mom’s perspective, distance learning went smoothly for Olson’s daughters at Baxter Elementary School this year, too, as they established their schedules with teachers and were able to work from home while mom taught her classes.

But she’s glad to be back in person all the same.

“I am just so thankful we are back, and you can just genuinely tell, if you were in here, that the kids are excited to be back. They want to be here,” Olson said.

When Lowell fourth grader Carter Gosch went to school Feb. 1, it was the first time in nearly a year. Mom Barb Gosch said Carter was one of students who excelled during distance learning, even last spring when he was working from the coffee table with papers spread all over the living room. All families had the option of distance learning this year. The Goschs took advantage of that opportunity, as Barb’s husband is diabetic, and the family wasn’t 100% comfortable sending Carter to school.

But with a new desk, chair and monitor for his Chromebook, Carter had his own office setup at home to ensure comfort while distance learning. While doing school work from home seemed to suit Carter well, it still took a little bit of an emotional toll, which ultimately led to him joining his peers for in-person classes in February.

“He didn’t act out. He didn’t have bad behavior as a result of it by any means, but he did miss his friends, and I can understand being stuck at home all day in your room,” Gosch said, noting Carter is an only child, so socializing with friends is important.

For Kaycie Tohm and her three kids, distance learning last spring compared to this fall and winter was a night and day difference.

“The way that the teachers implemented everything this year was amazing,” she said.

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Having more set schedules was a big help for her kids, who are in second and fourth grade at Lowell Elementary and fifth grade at Forestview Middle School. While they did OK with the distance learning last spring, having more direct contact with their teachers was better this year, as Tohm said the kids all love being in school. She also had an easier time working from home when her kids were able to be more self-sufficient with their work.

The biggest struggle throughout the year came with Tohm’s fifth grade son, Jake, who was relegated to the cafeteria — or “learning commons” — every other day during the hybrid model. Fifth graders switched off being in the classroom and working independently in the learning commons, which was hard for Jake, especially when added to the fact of being in a brand new, bigger school with a lot of students he doesn’t know.

“He’s still felt like he doesn’t really know anybody but those that he knew prior because they don’t get a lot of that one-on-one interaction with people,” Tohm said.

But the year is still going well, all things considered, and Tohm said the teachers have been awesome.

Gosch also gave a shout out to the leadership staff at Lowell.

“They worked really hard and bent over backwards to be accommodating, and the teachers there and the principal, they’re all just incredible,” she said, noting one of the contributing factors to whether or not Carter would stay home at the beginning of the year was if he would be able to continue on in the advanced AGATE program.

“The teacher made it happen with the Google Meets and distributing the work,” Gosch said. “A lot of it was up to Carter and to us to make sure that he got his stuff done, but we’re very grateful to that, so a big shout out to them for allowing that to happen.”

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Forestview Middle School students leave school Thursday, Oct. 29. All middle and high school students in Brainerd will begin distance learning Thursday, Nov. 5. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

But perhaps one of the biggest kudos of the year goes to the students for their resilience, flexibility and willingness to whatever they needed to do to be in school.

Vandeputte said her students are facing mental health issues, like anxiety and depression, that they’ve never had to deal with before, which is also an added strain on teachers. That may be why the students are so ready to deal with safety protocols like distancing and masking if it means they can be in school.

While parents and teachers were worried about kids being able to wear masks all day, Tohm said the students never batted an eye, especially if it meant they could see their teachers in person.

“Hopefully we’ll get back to some sort of normalcy, but you have to take it as it comes and try to live as easy as you can and just go with the flow,” she said. “You can’t fight it. It’s not going to do any good.”

Even the littlest learners, like Olson’s first graders, are on board.

“When you give them a little reminder, ‘Pull your mask up’ and you say, ‘We want to stay in school,’ they’re like, ‘Me too,’” Olson said. “So they genuinely just want to be at school.”

And if there’s any silver lining to the challenges the past year has brought, it’s the belief that overcoming a global pandemic means teachers can overcome pretty much anything.

“In theory, next year should be maybe a little easier, and the year after that a cakewalk,” Vandeputte said with a laugh. “Basically it cannot get harder than this ever again.”

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