Home schooling takes on a virtual, new meaning

By Sarah CR Clark

In a dramatic turn of events, St. Paul Public School communities went straight from cancelled school days due to the teachers’ strike to state mandated school closures in a bid to slow the spread of Covid-19.

As families abide by Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order, students are doing school via “distance learning” while their parents and guardians suddenly find themselves home, too. It’s a new way to carry on school that is challenging for teachers, parents and students alike.

“None of us have really processed any of these changes yet,” St. Anthony Park Elementary Principal Karen Duke said in the first days of the new schooling arrangement. While parents are learning how to direct their children’s learning at home, teachers and administrators have encountered challenges in preparing to provide distance learning for students.

“I have felt woefully unprepared, sorrowful at the loss of student contact, (but also) excited to learn something new,” Ruth Krider, a second-grade teacher at SAP Elementary, reflected on preparing for distance learning.

Nichola Phillips, a SAP Elementary third-grade teacher, also felt overwhelmed. “I feel like I’ve come face-to-face with technology I didn’t know how to use. I feel like I’ve learned a lot.”

The teachers have had many virtual meetings, both in teams and as an entire school staff. They share resources they’ve found with each other.

Nevertheless, they miss their students.

“The whole social part of learning is missing right now,” Phillips said, explaining that students won’t have their reading buddies, learning groups, recess or their friends.

Krider believes two clear takeaways from distance learning are already apparent: first, technology will never be a substitute for face-to-face learning; second, schools serve communities in more ways than just classroom time. Personal relationships, food, physical health care, social/emotional/mental health service and connecting families are other facets in educating the whole child.

Meanwhile, Principal Duke said, “The teachers have been incredible. They’ve been upbeat. They’ve picked up the ball.”

“It’s amazing the amount of support, coordination, and organization from the district,” Duke said, crediting SPPS for its support.

She added that the school district’s existing iPad technology (each student has an iPad) and infrastructure have been “a great head start” toward managing the many changes from in-school learning to distance learning.

The district also provided weekly lesson plan expectations to all educators. But the transition is not yet complete.

“Teachers and kids are really craving personal connection,” Duke explained. As of the writing of this story, the schools planned to slowly introduce group meetings through Google Meet, where classes can meet with each other in real time. “We love and miss the kids,” Duke said.

Students and parents miss teachers

Both students and parents also are missing teachers.

Andrea Kisch is mother to Jamie Kisch, a fourth grader at SAP Elementary. “Ever since Jamie entered kindergarten, I’ve volunteered in her classrooms,” Andrea said. “I’ve thought to myself that I went into the wrong profession. I love being at the school and working with students. But distance learning opened my eyes. I’m not cut out to be a teacher!”

Meanwhile, Jamie was excited to bring her school iPad home, and is engaged in her learning activities. Her mom reported, “We’re on Day 3 of Distance Learning—today is better than Day 1. We’re hopeful that trend continues!”

For the Kisch family, the most difficult thing with distance learning is balancing the needs of work and school while everyone is at home. Both Andrea and her husband’s work schedules keep them at their home desks from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. “We want to provide more guidance than we have time for.”

Still, everyone is adapting to, for now, the new normal. Take Tiffany Kaul, a mother of three students (from elementary to high school) and a teaching assistant at SAP Elementary. She has made a schedule for her family.

“First thing in the morning is schoolwork,” Tiffany said. “I have been available to help them if needed. But I feel overwhelmed when my oldest daughter asks for help.

“My children have always wished to be home-schooled. I can tell you that this week of distance learning has probably changed their minds about that.”

Kaul is thankful that her daughters’ teachers are devoted to their students, even when it comes to conducting distance learning. “It is amazing to see how different teachers use different tools to keep the kids connected,” she said.

Still, when things feel challenging, Kaul reminds her girls, “This is a crazy and unusual time. Things will get better and this won’t last forever!”

Sarah CR Clark is a resident of St. Anthony Park and a regular contributor to the Bugle.

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