As districts across the country continue coming to grips with remote learning, jmc is introducing a new webinar series called Distance Learning Brainstorms. These webinars, unlike our training videos, aren’t related to jmc products specifically. Rather, we're providing a forum to help teachers and administrators exchange ideas and learn from each other. Follow the series and watch past videos on our YouTube channel.
In the second webinar in our Distance Learning Brainstorms series, we spoke with Lake City, Minnesota, education professional Greg Berge. Berge is the principal of Lincoln High School, a building with about 600 students in grades 7-12. His wife, Heidi, also works for the Lake City Public Schools district as an elementary school teacher.
Berge talked about how his district has handled distance learning: how they created their district plan, what it looks like at the high school and elementary levels, and how they were able to overcome bumps along the way. His comments here have been condensed and edited for length.
How did your district’s distance learning plan come together?
We found out on a Sunday in mid-March that we were going to have eight days to prepare for distance learning, which we really appreciated. Our administration met that day and decided to cancel school on Monday and Tuesday as well, which gave us 10 days total to prepare.
We spent the first five days putting a plan together with our teachers. We did some of the brainstorming in person (spreading out seats for social distancing) and some in shared Google docs. Then, over the next five days, the teachers applied that plan to their curriculum to get things ready as well as they could.
We talked a lot about empathy, compassion, and ease of workload. Even to this day—I meet with our staff every week—I make sure they keep hearing those words, because this is a very difficult time for all of us and it’s important to acknowledge that.
What, if any, obstacles did you have to overcome? For example, how did you work with families without home internet access?
So much of the legwork during the first week involved getting all the data we could on our school community’s internet access. We're very lucky that most of our families have some type of access. Our local Verizon donated a few of their Jetpack wi-fi hotspots, and we were also able to give five of the library’s hotspots to families that needed them.
At the high school level, I think we're down to three families that are doing work by paper correspondence. Here’s how that works: one of our paraprofessionals delivers the work to the home by noon on Monday. Then on Thursday, they return to swap out completed work for new material. So far that seems to be working pretty well for those families.
Before the closures, we had a lot of teachers, especially math teachers, who were already videotaping their lessons so any absent kids could stay caught up with the work. A lot of those teachers took that same idea into distance learning. They might make a 10-15–minute video on a lesson, then use a live Zoom session to answer questions. I think that's happening a lot.
What was your technology infrastructure like before the closures?
We were lucky for several reasons. First, we've had a one-to-one student iPad initiative in place for all students in grades 7 through 12 for five years. Second, Schoology is our learning management system, so we had the backbone in place already. And finally, we’ve been doing flexible learning on snow days for the last couple years. This is obviously a different situation, but it gave us a great start. So really, the only new piece we had to add was the face-to-face interaction (and learn how to use Zoom).
How was the course workload during the first two weeks, and how is it like now?
Anecdotally I can say that about 85% of our families felt it was just right. The rest were pretty evenly split between saying it was too much work or not enough. So we really conveyed the message to our teachers not to add any more, because this is a perfect amount we're doing right now.
These days, we’re teaching much less content—for example, a math teacher who might’ve taught a new lesson every day when school was in person might only introduce two concepts a week in distance learning. But we're still moving along in the curriculum. We’re still teaching.
How are you maintaining connections between students and their teachers and classmates?
This piece was very important to us, and I’m proud to say our teachers have responded with enormous creativity. Here are just a few examples: Our PhyEd teachers are doing incredible stuff—yoga sessions, home workouts, meditation exercises, and so on—that kids are really buying into. The elementary school librarian is reading books and posting the videos. Some of the lower grades are having our high school kids Zoom in to play games with students and listen to them read. Our first graders have reading buddies during the school year; now they're pen pals.
I think if you asked our teachers and parents, they’d say they feel very good about what's going on. We have a good workload, we're staying connected with kids—overall just a lot of positive things are happening.
Do you think this situation is going to change education at the high school and elementary level? If so, how?
It’s definitely going to have an impact. I could see a lot more hybrid models, especially at the high school and maybe even the 7-12 level, where kids come in two to three days a week and learn at home on other days. Elementary, however, is going to be tough. Students still need that one-to-one interaction in the younger grades. But whether we’re back in session as usual in the fall or not, I think we’ll see a lot of creative ideas coming from this time, and I think it'll all be good in the long run.