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Marshall schools ready for distance learning

Plan includes online interaction between teachers and students

Submitted photo Park Side teachers prepared for distance learning earlier this week. From left to right are Jodie Holland, Carolyn Fuller, Nicole Engel, Theresa Leek and Emily Carroll.

MARSHALL — Marshall Public Schools is technically in the fourth quarter of its academic year. But on Monday, it’s going to be like making a new start, Jeremy Williams said.

“We see Monday morning as being like the first day of school,” said Williams, director of teaching and learning at MPS. It will be the day that Marshall students begin distance learning, while Minnesotans across the state are urged to stay home to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“We’ll be ready,” Williams said.

Last week, Minnesota public schools were ordered to close so school districts could have distance learning plans ready to go by March 30. By Wednesday of this week, Williams said MPS’s plan was coming together, but it hadn’t been easy.

“We’ve asked teachers, in eight days, to redesign how they teach. That’s huge,” Williams said. “All the staff have really stepped up.”

MPS’s new distance learning plan is different from its e-learning plan for snow days, Williams said. On e-learning days, the emphasis is on working completely online. Distance learning will involve both real-time interaction with teachers, as well as other kinds of assignments that don’t require teachers and students to be online at the same time. That real-time interaction could be online, or through other options like check-ins over the phone, he said.

“It’s going to look different at each grade level, to some extent,” Williams said. Distance learning could make use of interactive platforms like SeeSaw and Schoology, which MPS already uses, as well as recorded lessons, or activities that don’t require technology.

“We were very fortunate we were one-to-one already,” with many students being issued iPads, laptops or other devices through the school district, Williams said. But one of the big challenges facing distance learning is making sure all students have access to the internet at home.

MPS started a phone survey to families on Tuesday.

“Our main focus is identifying who has Internet or who doesn’t,” and finding ways to accommodate all families, he said. Local families will have some resources available to them. Williams said the district will be working with local internet providers, to offer families free setup over the next two months, and MPS also has some mobile Wi-Fi hotspots that would be available to check out. MPS has set up a technology support line to help families.

Williams said MPS will also be working to accommodate special education students and students who are English language learners. It’s a process that will involve a lot of communication, he said. In the case of English learners, MPS is working with student parent connectors and EL teachers to help accommodate students.

The distance learning program will be up and running for the next few weeks at least. On Wednesday, Gov, Tim Walz ordered that Minnesota schools stay closed and offer distance learning until May 4.

“It’s within what we had expected,” Williams said. More direction will need to come from the governor as to what schools will do after that point.

While Minnesota is under a “stay at home” order for the next two weeks, Williams said MPS school buildings will be open to staff. However, many teachers will likely work from home, he said.

In addition to prepping for distance learning, MPS employees have also been working to provide free meals to children in the district, as well as offering emergency child care for essential workers like health care providers and emergency responders. Williams said he didn’t see that changing once the distance learning program starts. It’s an important community service while Minnesota deals with COVID-19.

“We’re all in it together,” Williams said.

Schools around Lyon County are all getting ready to start distance learning on Monday, and some of the preparations have been similar across different school districts. Distance learning plans on the Lynd Public School and RTR School District websites said students in different grade levels would be completing a mix of assignments using online resources, and ones that weren’t technology-based. In a Sunday video message to families in the Tracy Area School District, Superintendent Chad Anderson said over the course of this week, the district would be testing its distance learning technology, so teachers could contact students. Tracy Area Schools would also be making sure this week that families had materials like laptops and other school supplies for distance learning, Anderson said.

In the Lakeview School District, instructions and schedules for distance learning went out to families on Tuesday and Wednesday, said Superintendent Chris Fenske. Fenske said Lakeview’s plan would also involve a mix of online interaction and more traditional assignments for younger students, and work time and live or recorded lessons for older students.

For high school students, he said, “We tried to keep it as much like a normal school day as we can.” Students would have live check-ins with teachers during distance learning days, he said.

“We know not everything is going to be perfect,” he said, but he appreciated Lakeview families’ patience and flexibility as distance learning rolls out.

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