COVID-19 is taking a toll on people, and schools around the country are feeling it. However, during a once-in-a-century pandemic, Alexandria Area High School is finding ways to keep its head above water.
When K-12 school districts were asked last month to come up with ways to carry out the remainder of the school year virtually, Alexandria was ahead of the game at the high school level. Each student is assigned a Chromebook computer before the year.
Students use a program called Schoology for assignments and projects. Because the high school had already incorporated technology into everyday education, distance learning was the best fit for both the students and the staff.
“I think we are doing what’s best for what we know,” AAHS ninth grade math teacher Tyson Swaggert said. “I think the students enjoy the face-to-face interaction with their teacher, and I know more learning is happening because of that.
“I feel bad for the schools that don’t have the resources that we have. They’re doing the best they can. There is no right or wrong right now. The only thing that schools can do is what they’re capable of with what they have access to use. There can’t be many districts in the state that are doing it better than we are.”
On March 15, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz postponed school activities for eight days so schools could prepare for distance learning. Those days have turned into an indefinite amount of time as the world waits for the global phenomenon to dissipate.
“After the governor called off schools on Sunday, the teachers came in on Monday to come up with plans for the kids to start school from home,” AAHS 10th grade English teacher Karen Dokter said. “The students came in that Tuesday, so we could get them all of the tools they’ll need. It was a quick turnaround for all of us.”
Distance learning is a chance for students to get as close to being in the classroom without leaving home. Teachers operate from their workspace using a video service called Google Meet. Students have 70-minute class periods online, where they spend each period how the teacher sees fit.
Teachers are allowed to work from home if their personal situation calls for it. That is the situation for Swaggert, and the transition was a smooth one with two young kids at home.
“We had the chance for child care, but it wasn’t working for us,” he said. “My wife is also working full time. We kind of tag team working and teaching and keeping our kids on track.”
Swagger considers himself fortunate to have a good internet connection that allows his family to be connected at the same time without any hiccups. He said that who is working from school and who is based out of their home is being handled on a case-by-case basis.
While Swaggert can continue his classes from his house, Dokter needs the amenities that the school offers.
“We have limited WiFi at home, so I have to be here,” Dokter said. “I have two daughters that are in high school that need to be online for their classes, so it makes sense for me to be here. What I need to do for classes I’m not able to do at home.
“I miss the kids, and I do like that we do the Google Meet video classes. I think it’s the next best thing. Even though everybody isn’t physically here, we are somewhat here.”
Teachers use their Google Meet class periods like they would in person. One benefit of distance learning in Alexandria is the ability for teachers to record their lessons in real time, allowing students to go back after hours to catch up on things they may have missed.
During the first week of distance learning, the Schoology program experienced some technical difficulties. For Alexandria and other districts using the learning device, it was a rude awakening to online schooling.
“We didn’t know if it was an issue on our end or something else,” Dokter said. “It was a struggle, and it was a frustrating first few days for all of us. What the students did was instead of submitting assignments on Schoology, they shared the Google documents with me. Even though I had hundreds of emails coming in, I was impressed with how they handled themselves.”
Kids doing their part
School is a two-way relationship. Not only does it take a grand effort from educators, but the students need to reciprocate that effort to get the most out of their time in the classroom. Alexandria students have not only taken distance learning in stride, but have shown initiative while learning from home.
“What sticks out to me is how we do attendance,” Dokter said. “We weren’t sure what to do about attendance. We were going to do it where we saw who checked into the Google Meet sessions combined with assignments dates. On day one, the kids were there, and they were ready. Everybody showed up. Now we take attendance like normal, which a lot of schools can’t do. Our kids have been spectacular.”
Despite not being in the classroom, Swaggert didn’t have to make any severe curriculum changes.
“I think the only thing for me is we aren’t going to cover as many topics as I planned,” Swaggert said. “The Minnesota Department of Education has said that we aren’t going to do everything that we had planned because our days are cut shorter, and we can’t get as much done face-to-face. But we are still going over the most important things for the kids to learn. We are going to get through whatever we can get through.”
While the chance of returning to the classroom is slim, there is still a shred of hope for teachers and students. Dokter wants to see students that she has taught receive their diploma in person instead of on camera.
“I feel terrible for the seniors. I couldn’t imagine how hard it is for them not to get the chance to finish it out here,” she said. “It will be interesting if we have to see graduation speakers perform online instead of in person. It’s just a sad time for these kids.”