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‘I’m just trying to keep an open mind’: What the first day of distance learning looked like in Minnesota

When Pang Yang and her children tried logging into Schoology, a popular online classroom platform, this message appeared on the laptop screen. Across the state, students and parents had similar experiences as they embarked on the first official day of distance learning.
Photo by Pang Yang
When Pang Yang and her children tried logging into Schoology, a popular online classroom platform, this message appeared on the laptop screen. Across the state, students and parents had similar experiences as they embarked on the first official day of distance learning.

Monday morning, students, parents and educators across the state of Minnesota tested the limits of popular online classroom platforms — like Seesaw and Schoology — which crashed and froze as they all embarked on their first official day of distance learning. 

Statewide, school buildings have been closed to student learning and activities since March 18, when Gov. Tim Walz issued an initial closure. The mandatory closure gave all public school educators an eight-day planning period, so they could transition curriculums and student services for remote delivery — whether online, or through some creative delivery and pickup systems — in the event that the COVID-19 pandemic warranted stricter social distancing measures. 

That scenario became a reality last week, when Walz signed an executive order directing all public schools to remain closed and implement their distance learning plans. For now, Walz has put a May 4 deadline on distance learning. But that could be extended through to the end of the school year. 

This new school day — one where students are expected to work remotely, in the midst of a pandemic — has thrust parents into new roles as ad hoc education assistants and challenged teachers to make their lessons available to all students despite technology barriers, language barriers and more. 

The statewide rollout on Monday (which excluded Minneapolis Public Schools, St. Paul Public Schools and other districts on spring break this week) included a lot of technical glitches and raised more questions than it answered, for many. 

But there’s also a strong sense of determination, among teachers and the families they serve, to stay connected with their school communities and to adapt the best they can in such short order: 

‘Just one laptop at home’: Alicia Bowstring, student at Bemidji State University, and mother of a first-grader in the Cass Lake-Bena Schools district

Monday started out feeling “kind of slow,” Bowstring says — until one of her classmates messaged her, asking if she was going to join their 10 a.m. class that had already started on Zoom, an online platform.

Just a handful of her peers managed to log in, she said. But no one will be docked as they — along with K-12 students statewide — troubleshoot with new technology on day one of remote learning.

Alicia Bowstring's 7-year-old son shown during his first day of distance learning.
Courtesy of Alicia Bowstring
Alicia Bowstring's 7-year-old son shown during his first day of distance learning.
After that, she helped her 7-year-old son log in for his first day of distance learning on the same laptop and guided him through his assignments. 

“His log-in stuff was easy, I guess, because the teacher sent home this little card with his login and password,” she said, adding his teacher also sent home a packet of activity options for the first week of learning from home. 

By noon, she had to take back the laptop — since there’s “just one laptop at home” — so she could log in for her advanced Ojibwe class, where her professor “hit the ground running,” live-streaming a lecture. Immediately after that, she accessed her third class for the day, online. 

“He’s not able to finish anything until this evening,” she said, recapping her son’s school day at home. “That’s what he’s working on now.”

On Tuesday, the online learning balancing act will become even more complex as her husband, who’s pursuing his second post-secondary degree through Leech Lake Tribal College, begins distance learning as well.  

“We’re going to see how that’s gonna go, because we have classes at the same time,” she said. “I suppose I could do it on my phone, but it’s not as easy as being on my laptop.”

She’s put a lot of hard work into maintaining a 3.9 GPA, she says. And she’s anxious about how all of these adjustments could impact her academic record during this home stretch. She’s navigating all of this while simultaneously continuing her job as a dispatcher for the Leech Lake Tribal Police Department, as a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.

“I’m just trying to keep an open mind about it — and stay as positive as possible and work with what I have.”

‘Just hearing her teacher’s voice got her excited’: Kassie Thurow, mother of two elementary students in Bloomington

School at home for Thurow, her husband and their two kids — who both attend Normandale Hills Elementary School in the Bloomington Public Schools district — began with a family meeting, where everyone took a turn answering the question of the day: “Who’s your favorite Paw Patrol?”

Her second-grade son, Elijah, suggested the format when they implemented their own weeklong trial run of distance learning two weeks ago, ahead of their spring break.

Kassie Thurow's second-grade son, Elijah, alongside kindergartener, Alice.
Courtesy of Kassie Thurow
Kassie Thurow's second-grade son, Elijah, alongside kindergartener, Alice.
Then, around 9 a.m., they helped both kids log into their Seesaw accounts to access recorded greetings and instructions from their teachers, new class content and assignments. 

For this week, the kids are expected to complete and post one assignment per day, she says. She’s waiting to hear what the expectation will be, moving forward, but suspects it’ll turn into one activity per day for each core subject.

“That’s where this becomes challenging,” she said, noting the at-home school day was fairly hands-on for her and her husband, who are both adjusting to working remotely from home right now. “The kids know how to use Seesaw fairly well, but there’s definitely parent engagement — to upload, help them record, take pictures.”

And right around 10 a.m., when they were uploading the three questions Elijah had written, the site crashed and he lost his work — prompting a mini life-skill lesson on perseverance. 

“We tried to roll with that,” Thurow said, adding it helped that their teachers were offering feedback once her kids submitted their work.

“I thought it was really cool to get a bit of an immediate response,” she said, noting the feedback had the most noticeable impact on her kindergartener, Alice — the one who went to bed nervous about her first day of distance learning Sunday evening.

“Her teacher does a lot of audio comments back,” she said. “So I think just hearing her teacher’s voice got her excited. She had a smile on her face.”

‘I was sad to see only my white families come on today’: Maria Le, first-grade teacher at Central Park Elementary School in Roseville

From 9 to 11 a.m., Le and her teaching partner had co-launched a video conference session on the Google Meet platform, making themselves available to their students for a low-key check in. “A lot of them were just saying, ‘Here’s my pet, or here’s my room,’” Le said. “My teaching partner and I were just messaging each other on our phones. Just to hear kids’ laughter again meant so much.”

She says that while some degree of learning took place Monday, her mission was purely to reconnect with her students, and to allow them space to connect with each other — a much-needed return to some semblance of normalcy for many, after a stretch of no school, followed by a spring break. 

She’s also being mindful of students’ lack of access to technology at home.

Maria Le, first-grade teacher at Central Park Elementary School in Roseville
Courtesy of Maria Le
Maria Le, first-grade teacher at Central Park Elementary School in Roseville.
It’s a resource issue that her school attempted to resolve ahead of Monday. But once it became clear that not all families were equipped to participate in online distance learning plans, she said, teachers were asked to pull together paperwork packets for pick up and distribution late last week, without enough time to get all materials translated for non-English-speaking families.

Still feeling a bit overwhelmed by the last-minute switch-up, Le says she expects that many of her families need time to acclimate as well. And she doesn’t plan to penalize anyone who can’t access class online. So, for now, she’s committed to not teaching anything live, online. 

“I was sad to see only my white families came on today. My students of color were not able to,” she said of the Google Meet session she hosted online. 

She did, however, notice that many of those students still attempted to engage with content through the Seesaw app. She’s aiming to help them more successfully navigate the group platforms on Tuesday.

“Tomorrow I’ll put out a video — a visual for how to do it,” Le said. 

‘Our son doesn’t really care about our meetings’: Kristin and Matt Shaver, teachers at two different Minneapolis-based charter schools

Kristin spent much of her first day of distance learning, as an EL teacher and team leader at Harvest Best Academy, in online meetings with her colleagues and on the phone with students. Her school ended up distributing paper packets of school work to students, so they could get started while the school continues to outfit each household with a device, so all students can access online learning. 

By 4 p.m., she still had one student left on her list for a phone check-in — one she’d been unable to reach earlier in the day. And she’d spent over an hour on the phone delivering direct instruction via FaceTime to another student.

“There’s multiple siblings in the family — all using one parent’s cellphone,” she said. “So there’s a lot of interruptions and phone dying and siblings coming in to ask when she’s going to be done with the phone.”

As a new parent to a 4-month-old, she’s also learning how to juggle at-home child care as she checks in with her students. For part of Monday, that meant holding her child in one arm, while he napped, and working on her computer with her free hand. 

Her husband, Matt, teaches middle school science and social studies at Northeast College Prep. He’s on spring break this week, but he participated in a trial run — called week zero — last week with his students. 

“Last week was crazy in that we had Zoom meetings at the same time — and our son doesn’t really care about our meetings at all,” he said, noting they’ve been passing him back and forth these past two weeks, as they both attempt to get their work done. 

Reflecting on his trial run last week, he says he noticed his students were filing work as late as 9 or 10 p.m. He even had one submit a powerpoint at 2 a.m.

Harvest Best Academy EL teacher Kristin Shaver instructing students via FaceTime, while holding her 4-month-old baby.
Courtesy of Kristin Shaver
Harvest Best Academy EL teacher Kristin Shaver instructing students via FaceTime, while holding her 4-month-old baby.
“My inference is that a lot of older siblings are letting their younger siblings use the technology first. They’re essentially in charge of the kids during the day, so they’re doing a lot more of their work later in the evening,” he said. 

That means he’s being more flexible with his office hours — even if he has concerns about how all-consuming the next two months might become.

“It’s really hard for me to say, ‘I’m going to let that message go until tomorrow,’ when I have a kid trying to do their work, who needs some help,” he said. 

‘This is really stressful’: Monica Izarnotegui, mother of an 11th-grader attending school in Roseville 

When her 11th-grade son attempted to log in to his classes Monday morning, Izarnotegui says he ran into technical difficulties right away. 

“My child was online for 10, 15 minutes, trying to connect. He could for a short moment, but the system was locked and he couldn’t do anything else,” she said. “So he called some of his classmates, and they were having the same issues.”

She’s home now, since her cleaning business is closed during the stay-at-home order. And she said she was planning to follow up with his teachers, in the Roseville Area Public Schools district, that evening. 

Until now, she says she’s been pleased with the communications she’s received from the schools during this transition period, including lots of emails and robocalls with Spanish translations.  

But she’s still worried that this experiment in distance learning may interfere with her son’s ability to acquire all of the credits he needs to complete 11th grade this spring. She’s already contingency planning, wondering about summer school options, if it comes to that. 

“This is really stressful,” she said. “I worry about it. I’m thinking because it was the first day, they will see what’s wrong with the system and fix it.”

‘I chose to keep everyone together at the dining room table’: Pang Yang, mother of four students attending Robbinsdale schools, and Hmong teacher at Park Center High School in Brooklyn Park

Monday morning went pretty smoothly, says Yang. Her daughters, in grades 9 and 11, woke up early and logged in to their devices to start completing assignments and quizzes without much prompting. 

They even found time to help out with their two younger brothers — a first-grader who normally receives special education services at school, and a second-grader who has struggled more than his siblings with the disruption to his normal school routine. 

Bracing for the first week of distance learning, Yang took advantage of the fact that the two youngest didn’t realize they were on spring break and had them do a bit of school work each day. 

“We created this flex learning schedule,” she said, adding it really relies on a team effort, to make sure everyone is getting the support they need and on plenty of built-in breaks.

Pang Yang's four children, who attend Robbinsdale schools, shown during their first day of distance learning.
Courtesy of Pang Yang
Pang Yang's four children, who attend Robbinsdale schools, shown during their first day of distance learning.
“You have to study a bit, play a little bit,” she said. That mindset proved especially useful as her kids ran into technical glitches throughout the day, when the online platforms they were using for class were overwhelmed with traffic.

Strategically, she created a central workstation at their house — fully stocked with games and schools supplies to help strike a productive, yet low-key, mood. 

“I chose to keep everyone together at the dining room table, so that if there’s issues I can walk around and help answer questions,” she said, adding “the older girls can help with the boys as well.” 

Yang also teaches Hmong to native speakers at her high school in the Osseo Area Schools district. For her, the transition to distance learning hasn’t felt much more time-intensive than her normal lesson planning does. She’s already used to creating most of her texts and worksheets from scratch, since they don’t exist in the Homng language anywhere else, she says. 

For her, the biggest source of concern heading into Monday was wondering how to best support her youngest son’s speech progress without access to his speech therapist at school. In the morning, his teachers reached out with some guidance and learning tools. 

“It’s always been on my mind, but the team did a wonderful job, making sure we’re good to go,” she said.  

‘It was certainly a team effort here today’: Andrea Haglund, mother of three students in Anoka-Hennepin schools

The school day in Haglund’s household started a bit later than normal, but by 9 a.m. all three of her kids were “dressed and ready to go” — a hard reset of sorts, after a couple of less structured weeks where pajamas passed for daytime attire. 

Her seventh-grader logged into his device and had completed all of his classes in less than an hour, she says. Her ninth-grade son, who’s taking lots of advanced classes, worked until about 1 p.m., with a family break for lunch and a walk outside. 

While the boys largely worked independently, Haglund spent the better part of her day alongside her other ninth-grader, Elaina, who has Williams syndrome and normally receives a number of specialized supports at school — things like physical therapy and speech services. 

She’s still waiting to hear from a number of her daughter’s service providers, she says.

Andrea Haglund's children logging on to Anoka-Hennepin schools' distance learning platform.
Courtesy of Andrea Haglund
Andrea Haglund's children logging on to Anoka-Hennepin schools' distance learning platform.
“She definitely needed more support than her brothers did with their typical classes,” she said. “I was by her side the whole time she was learning and trying to access that education.” 

But they still ran into some issues, in navigating the new online learning platforms together and in adjusting to longer communication wait times as her daughter waited to hear back from her teachers when she had questions about her assignments. 

“Luckily, she had a brother in the same grade who was able to help as well. Without him, I don’t think she would have gotten her assignments done today,” Haglund said.  “It was certainly a team effort here today.”

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Robert Wedl on 03/31/2020 - 12:09 pm.

    Excellent article. This is very early in the distance learning process but let’s hope we learn new ways for learning to occur. When this is over we should not just snap back to the pre-pandemic ways. Keep the parts that work well. Lots of personalized learning going on.

  2. Submitted by Sieglinde Gassman on 03/31/2020 - 12:44 pm.

    I am amazed and impressed! Can’t imagine how a household with one computer/iPad and multiple learners will work this out. Wishing everyone success in this very unique education system. We will not come out of all of this unchanged. Hats off!.

  3. Submitted by Linda Hildebrant on 04/01/2020 - 08:10 am.

    Thank you for an entertaining and informative read. Loved the photos and variety of family scenarios. What an amazing experience this pandemic is providing the world. Best wishes to all of us as we work through each new challenge together.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Carlson on 04/01/2020 - 09:17 am.

    Excellent article, Erin! Safety is always the first priority in any educational setting but providing child care is a close second. This pandemic clearly shows the challenges parents face when public school facilities are closed.

    The other unintended consequence (or potential service improvement indicator) of distance learning is to dramatically display the disparities in both funding and local infrastructure failures. What if there is no wireless connection available? What if the family cannot afford an internet connection or multiple devices for multiple children? What if your child has special needs and accommodations for their learning are not available? What if the parents are not capable of providing a safe setting at home or one conducive to learning?

    Granted, public schools struggle to meet these same needs on a daily basis but at least local governance and competent school staff oversight minimize the gaps in services to our students. I hope when this health crisis is over that lessons are learned at all levels of government and more effort is made to mitigate these disparities that lead to an inequitable learning environment for those among us who are most in need. Stay tuned!

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