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‘I am very confused, to be honest’: Minnesota students, parents and educators reflect on four weeks of distance learning

Many have settled into a new school-at-home routine. Others are questioning whether this new format is sustainable, or even effective. And many are still stuck in limbo — waiting on devices and reliable internet connections.

Justin Ly
Justin Ly holding up signs thanking his teachers during this period of distance learning.
Courtesy of Pang Yang

On Friday, the majority of Minnesota’s teachers and students — along with their parents, who are now tasked with being educational assistants — wrapped up their fourth week of distance learning.

Many have settled into a new school-at-home routine. Others are questioning whether this new format is sustainable, or even effective. And many are still stuck in limbo — waiting on devices and reliable internet connections so they can participate fully in distance learning. 

Regardless of where folks fall along the spectrum, distance learning is here to stay — at least through the end of this school year. 

Gov. Tim Walz signed a new executive order on Thursday, extending distance learning through the remainder of this academic year. The order includes two more planning days for teachers — May 1 and May 4 — to recalibrate and to convert additional lessons for remote learning. 

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During this second phase of distance learning, many things will go unchanged: On-site child care for essential workers will continue, as will free meal pick-up and delivery services. And students should continue to receive a daily interaction with a licensed teacher and appropriate educational materials. 

Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker
Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune/Pool
Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker
“Many states didn’t even attempt to try something like this, because, I just think, the magnitude of it,” Walz said of the state’s distance learning plan at a presser Friday. “But we believe it’s worth it. We believe we’re learning.”

He and Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker highlighted three top priorities, moving forward: maintaining student-teacher relationships, closing technology gaps and addressing students’ mental health needs and well-being. 

Over the weekend, MinnPost checked back in with all seven families that had shared their initial thoughts and experiences for a Day 1 story. They’re no longer newbies. But they’re competing with new distractions — like the pull of summertime weather — and, in many ways, still trying to make sense of just how much stock to place in this new school model. 

‘It’s a lot easier, now that I was gifted that laptop’: Alicia Bowstring, student at Bemidji State University, and mother of a first-grader in the Cass Lake-Bena Schools district

Friday afternoon, Bowstring finished out her school week with an exam. It was a make-up for an Ojibwe class that she and a couple of her classmates had missed back when classes were still being held in-person. 

Translating over Zoom, however, proved a bit more challenging. She kept asking her teacher to repeat himself, because she couldn’t always make out what he’d said when the connection lagged. 

“Even he said it was hard doing it that way,” she said.

With finals week fast approaching, she’s mostly worried about how she’ll be able to complete a couple of big group projects. She’s on track to graduate this spring — and despite “feeling robbed” of a traditional commencement ceremony, she’s trying to make the best of the situation.

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“It’s just been hard to get ahold of fellow students, and complete work,” she said. “I’m just hoping that it doesn’t affect my grades too much, because I’m still striving to get the best grades possible.”

Her new work hours, as a dispatcher for the Leech Lake Tribal Police Department, sometimes overlap with her classes. So she does her best to log in to the livestreamed lectures for a moment, “to show up and be there,” even though it’s harder to concentrate.

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.
At least she doesn’t still have to worry about splitting one laptop three ways: with her son, who’s finishing out his first-grade year, and her husband, who’s also taking college courses remotely now. About a week into distance learning, she secured another laptop through a Minnesota State chancellor.

“It’s a lot easier, now that I was gifted that laptop,” she said. “It helped lessen a lot  of the burden of us all trying to fit on something.”

The favor even honored her request for a laptop with a touchscreen — a feature that her son was used to using on computers at school. Once she helps him get started with his lessons for the day, she says he’s able to do a lot of his work independently.

“He’s always been kind of a little techy guy,” she said. “I thought I was going to have to be around him more and really walk him through a lot of this stuff. But his teacher sends him assignments weekly. And he has this checklist.”

The bigger challenge, she says, is trying to address his need for friend time. Outdoor activities offer a good distraction, but they’re no substitute for playmates.

 “Honestly, that’s been hard on him,” she said. “He’s the only child right now.”

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‘All they want to do is be outside’: Kassie Thurow, mother of two elementary students in Bloomington

In the Thurow household, the kids have settled into a groove and are finishing most school assignments on time. But mornings have turned into a real challenge — with crabby kids and lots of pep talks. 

“It’s a little hard because every day you feel like it’s Groundhog Day. It feels like the same thing every day, which wears on all of us,” Thurow said. 

Some things have, more or less, been resolved. The online learning platforms her kids are using aren’t crashing the way they did early on. They were able to work with district staff to rebuild a school-issued iPad that ended up needing an update because the old software wasn’t compatible with the links teachers were sending out. And her son, the second-grader, has gotten the hang of completing a couple of assignments before asking a parent to review his work and help submit it. But things have stayed pretty hands-on with her kindergartener. 

“You just feel like you’re having to partner with her for every activity,” she said.

Courtesy of the Thurow family
Alice, far left, and Elijah, far right, at the Thurow family dining room table.
 For instance, getting through instructions for each assignment often involves talking things through more than once. Working apart from classmates, at home, means there’s no opportunity to “learn it as a herd,” by  filling in the blanks by observing what her classmates are doing. 

“In class, I think they read off of other students and their teacher’s facial expressions,” Thurow added. “I think where we’re struggling is she’ll listen, but she’s not understanding.”

Moving through the first month of distance learning, she says the workload has changed up  — partially in an effort to ensure that electives like art and phy ed don’t fall by the wayside, she suspects. 

At the outset, those teachers would post some activities to be completed by the end of the week — in addition to the three core daily assignments, tied to math, reading and writing. But Thurow says even though an entire week seems like enough time to get one extra assignment done, they rarely got to it. 

“It’s gym, for crying out loud. If they’re playing around outside, I think that should count,” she said. “So if we have time, we’ll do it. But more often than not, we don’t. I don’t know if we’ll get in trouble for that.”

In some ways, the need to triage some schoolwork is driven by the fact that her work-from-home hours have been increased this past month. Her husband has been doing most of the school stuff with the kids, she says, noting his workload — and stress level — is picking up too, though. 

Especially early on, she felt really torn over not being able to be more involved. But she says the constant reminders from teachers that these are difficult circumstances, and “it’s more about staying calm” has slowly sunk in. 

“I don’t think there’s any way to survive this without doing that,” she said. 

‘My students of color are the first to log in, and the last to log off’’: Maria Le, first-grade teacher at Central Park Elementary School in Roseville

Even after every student had been outfitted with a device, many of Le’s students still spent the bulk of this past month waiting on a hotspot so they could access her online office hours — where students can log in to a Google Meet session for face-to-face interactions with their teachers and peers. 

The hotspots, which were on backorder, got deployed this past week. 

Now that everyone’s connected, she says her initial concern — that not a single one of her students of color had logged in on day 1 — has been laid to rest. “All of my students of color are the first to log in, and the last to log off,” she said, of her office hours online. 

Most opt to just put their microphone on mute while completing their schoolwork — unmuting themselves to ask any questions or to announce that they’re going to the bathroom (out of habit) and will be right back.

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.
Maria Le
Courtesy of Maria Le
Maria Le's expanded work station following a month of distance teaching.
She reminds them that they don’t have to stay in the session, if they don’t have any questions. But they choose to stay connected. “You can see that something as simple as ‘I just want you on in the background, I know you’re there’ — that’s what they’re craving,” she said.

Constantly drawing upon her own life experiences, Le says she’s always been mindful of inequities in the education system that disproportionately impact students of color. Under the current circumstances, she’s kicked her efforts to break down barriers to learning into overdrive — whether that means physically delivering devices to students’ homes or taking the time to create tech and app tutorials that help her students, especially those who are newer to the country, access those online hangouts. 

For instance, a lot of teachers have compiled hyperlinks into a single document, to assist families in accessing content. But she can’t assume that all of her families are tech savvy enough to understand how hyperlinks work. In some cases, that means going an extra step to direct families to a video with a “universal symbol” for play over it, rather than assume they’ll be able to get there through a hyperlink. 

“It’s really hard for me, because I know I’m working overtime in trying to make sure kids get what they need,” she said, noting she feels “a lot more tired.”

From the start, she and her teaching partner decided to combine their classes and split up core lessons. “So we now have 50 that we’re doing feedback for, but at least it’s one or two topics instead of six,” she said, noting this strategy has worked out well.

‘Our eighth-graders need some type of closure’: Kristin and Matt Shaver, teachers at two different Minneapolis-based charter schools

Juggling teaching from home with caring for an infant has proven a bit tricky, but not impossible for the Shavers. They’ve fallen into a rhythm that balances their 5-month-old’s nap times with daily meeting times with their colleagues and the need to be available to students throughout the day. 

“We understand the ebbs and flows of the day a bit better now,” Matt said, noting his wife’s work schedule is a bit more front-loaded, with admin meetings in the morning. 

Troubleshooting tech issues with his students has gotten a lot easier as well, he adds. In large part, that’s because they’re “getting better at asking specific questions.” Instead of only getting an email with a line like “it’s not letting me on,” they’re giving him more context. 

These hiccups are still time consuming, though. And he’s had to adjust his own expectations for how much new content he can deliver online. 

“In terms of planning, I’ve been trying to follow this rule of ‘take what you would normally do and cut it in half’ — and cut it in half again,” he said.

Teacher Matt Shaver working and keeping an eye on the Shavers' 5-month-old.
Courtesy of the Shaver family
Teacher Matt Shaver working and keeping an eye on the Shavers' 5-month-old.
For most eighth-graders, this is the first time they’ve ever really had to manage an email account, with reminders and assignments from teachers. And it’s not a skill set that comes easy — even for plenty of adults, he adds. 

After the governor announced that students would not have a chance to return to school for in-person learning this school year, Matt says he spent his advisory check-in on Friday allowing his eighth-graders at Northeast College Prep time to process the news. Next year, they’ll all be going to different high schools. 

“I feel really sad for high school seniors, but in some ways they have more wherewithal to stay connected with their class,” he said. “We didn’t know our last day together was going to be our last day.”

His wife, Kristin, has been grappling with the same issue at Harvest Best Academy.

“We just recognize that our eighth-graders need some type of closure,” she said, noting the alternative graduation plan right now would resemble a drive-in movie, with families turning into a graduation announcement and watching a highlight reel play on a big screen. 

Now that everyone has been paired with a device, she says the big push — at least at the administrative level — has been figuring out what to do with grading during distance learning. They’ve discussed moving to a pass/fail system, she says. But concerns over what message that might send students — ”you can barely do anything and you’ll pass” — didn’t feel right. So they’re exploring an alternative participation-based grading system that has more gradients. 

She’s also still working out how to best support English Learner students who are running into new obstacles with distance learning. That includes setting a goal to boost one student’s confidence in her language skills enough so that she’s willing to submit her questions to her teachers in real time. 

“She’s a struggling reader and she feels nervous about her spelling, so she never wants to ask questions on platforms where other students can see it,” Kristin said. 

Anticipating distance learning will return in the fall — in some capacity — she says she’s been compiling a list of computer skills that her students need to be successful in this learning environment.

“What does the ‘@’ sign in an email address mean?’ she said, offering an example. “All this stuff  just takes much longer than you would think.”

‘I am very confused, to be honest’: Monica Izarnotegui, mother of an 11th-grader attending school in Roseville 

Based on the feedback she’s receiving from her 17-year-old son, Steven, he’s getting his work done and staying on track, academically. 

But she can’t shake the feeling that she’s not getting the whole story — that she’s being left in the dark a bit. 

“I’m always waking up my son in the morning. He’s making some work. But I don’t feel like this is going OK,” she said. 

Their internet connection at home has been reliable, she says. But some of the tech platform issues have persisted. It’s a frustration that fuels her sense of unease over school at home.

By-and-large, Steven seems to be much more relaxed about the situation. 

“I feel like it’s going all right. Obviously, I prefer actually going to school, but I can’t do much about that,” he said. 

His biggest struggle this past month has been not being able to join in on his classes via Zoom. But he’s still able to access the content and turn in his assignments, he says. “So it hasn’t really set me back too far.”

Monica Izarnotegui's son, Steven Estrada, has struggled attempting to join his classes via Zoom.
Courtesy of Monica Izarnotegui
Monica Izarnotegui's son, Steven Estrada, has struggled attempting to join his classes via Zoom.
His mom says she has a teacher conference online next week, so she’ll have a chance to check on how he’s doing in his classes — to see if what her son is telling her checks out. 

“It’s a little difficult for me — mostly because he’s a difficult age,” she said. 

Unable to work during the stay-at-home order, she continues to be at home, monitoring his progress as best she can. But even if he did ask her for help, she’s not sure she’d be able to help him with his math work and the like.

“I don’t know,” she said, reflecting on it all. ”I am very confused, to be honest.”

‘They no longer see it as fun’: Pang Yang, mother of four students attending Robbinsdale schools, and Hmong teacher at Park Center High School in Brooklyn Park

Yang says her two daughters — the high schoolers — are pretty self-sufficient with distance learning. They’ve both settled into a routine and continue to get their work done on their own. 

“I guess I’m doing fine for right now,” Gaonha, a freshman in the Robbinsdale district, said. “But there’s more assignments; and it’s more stressful.”

She’s still completing three math assignments each day and completing routine quizzes to check her learning. That’s on top of all of her other classes. But she appreciates being able to sleep in a bit. On a normal school day, she’d have to be up by 6 a.m. to make it to class by 7:20 a.m. 

“Now I wake up at 8 or 9, eat breakfast and do my classes until 1 or 2, until I’m done,” she said. 

By the end of last week, however, the novelty of school at home had worn off for her two elementary-aged brothers — a first-grader who normally receives special education services at school, and a second-grader.

“It’s gotten to the point where they no longer see it as fun,” Yang said. “It’s at the point where — do I fight with them, or do I let it go? How much do I hold them accountable for their learning?”

Kenji Yang
Courtesy of Pang Yang
Kenji Ly showing appreciation to his teachers during his distance learning.
She’s had to recruit more help from her husband and daughters to help keep the boys on track throughout the day. But even on a good day, she knows it’s unrealistic to expect more than an hour of concentration at a time. 

“Sometimes I  feel like less is better,” she said, adding rather than push them beyond their limits, she opts to be more strategic by “incorporate math with cooking or outside time with science.”

Yang may have a knack for this type of improvisation because she’s also a full-time teacher. Teaching remotely, though, has come with a separate set of challenges. She’s spent lots of time, this first month, tracking down students who aren’t engaging with class material.

“There are a few students who logged in the first day, then have not logged in at all for the rest of those four weeks,” she said, noting it’s taking coordination between herself, school social workers and others to check-in with these students to make sure they’re all right, and connected with the resources they need. 

For those who are showing up for class online, she’s noticed that most are completing their work in the afternoon and evening. Part of that may have to do with the fact that some of her students are picking up daytime shifts at grocery stores to help pay family bills during the pandemic.

“There are students who are essential workers and they need the money to pay the bills,” she said. “That also affects their ability to go online during the school day.”

‘I am still very hands-on for her’: Andrea Haglund, mother of three students in Anoka-Hennepin schools

Maintaining a daily school day routine at home has been a priority in the Haglund household as well. 

‘Everyone is, for the most part, actually up and working before 9, which is our set time. Somebody’s only been tardy once,” Haglund said with a laugh.

By 3 p.m. on Friday, all three were still working on school work, she said, surveying the room. Everyone has managed to keep good grades, so far. But learning to look for assignments on multiple online platforms  and in multiple emails — things that would normally just be delivered by a teacher in a classroom — took a bit of adjusting. 

To help everyone maintain focus, she’s built in a few incentives, like picking up take-out food for lunch on Fridays and going for walks outside to refresh, mentally. 

The walks are especially helpful for her ninth-grade daughter, Elaina, who has Williams syndrome. For her, the learning curve involved with distance learning has been a bit more trying.

“I am still very hands-on for her,” Haglund said, noting they’ve been working toward building more independence, like having Elaina email her teachers with questions on her own. 

In other ways, distance learning has proven more convenient for her daughter, who struggles with processing directions in class.

Left to right: Andrew, Nathan and Elaina Haglund at their home learning spaces.
Courtesy of the Haglund family
Left to right: Andrew, Nathan and Elaina Haglund at their home learning spaces.
“Now she can read through instructions at her own pace,” Haglund said, noting it also helps when her teachers include recordings of their instructions that she can review as well. 

Elaina normally receives a number of specialized supports at school — things like physical therapy and speech services. At the end of day 1, they were still waiting to hear from a number of her providers, Haglund said. By the end of week three, she’s heard back from all of them. 

Accessing paraprofessional services — which are still being offered, for one-on-one support during distance learning — has been more of a challenge. 

“That actually hasn’t worked yet — tech-wise,” she said. “I’m not really sure why. I’m hoping to add more of that, especially since distance learning will go on through the end of the year.”

On Friday, she overheard all of her kids share how they felt about the news regarding distance learning for the remainder of the school year, during check-ins with their teachers. Just like everyone else, they’ll miss seeing their classmates. But, at least for one of her sons, the news came as a relief.

“He’s happy that it’s not going back and forth,” she said, adding, “now that he started this process, he can just finish out the year.”