The Detroit Lakes School District is now more than two weeks into its distance learning program, and teachers and families say they’re beginning to settle into a "new normal" school routine that’s “easier than expected,” but still different and not without its challenges.

The district began providing distance learning on March 30, after schools closed March 17. School closures were mandated as part of Minnesota’s social distancing orders to help slow the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. They will remain closed until Monday, May 4.

Teachers and administrators were given about a week and a half, March 18-27, to design and implement an entirely new virtual curriculum for use by K-12 students throughout the closure — one that students and their parents can easily access and navigate on their own digital devices at home.

It was a very tall order, and one that schools were expected to complete in a very short amount of time.

“Amazingly,” as more than one honest Detroit Lakes teacher said with a laugh, they got 'er done.

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Several school administrators, teachers and parents shared input for this story through separate phone interviews, and their comments all shared a similar, positive thread: That the planning process and the distance learning experience itself both have exceeded reasonable expectations.

“When you think about taking basically 10 days to get this all rolled out, it’s been pretty amazing,” said Detroit Lakes High School Principal Darren Wolf. “For a lot of us, it kind of felt like we had to start a whole new school year … It was definitely a challenge.”

“I was really proud of the fact that the teachers really stepped up and just got work done and made things happen,” he added. “If you would have asked me a year ago if we could go online in a matter of 10 days and pretty much do OK with that, I would have said there’s no way we could do that — and here we’ve pulled it off.”

The key to that success was collaboration between teachers and strong yet flexible guidance from state officials and local school principals, said Mary Von Ruden, a third-grade teacher at Roosevelt Elementary.

Von Ruden said she worked closely with her team of other third-grade teachers at the school to devise a distance learning plan. They began by looking at the big picture and simplifying it as much as possible, determining “what was essential to teach the kids yet this year, per state standards.” They decided to focus on reading, math and writing.

From there, they narrowed things down into week-by-week achievement goals and then into specific day-to-day lesson plans. Finally, they made or found relevant educational videos, activities and assignments to put online for their students.

“This is my 30th year of teaching, and never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would be teaching from home on a computer,” Von Ruden said. “But it’s gone relatively well. I have to say that I feel really fortunate. Our district has been really good, as far as getting us programs to use and devices to use. Between our state and the district administration, they’ve been really good about ... helping us get this in place so soon.”

“It’s not perfect, but I think we’ll get better as we continue to go on,” she added. “I think over the weeks it will just improve and be easier for the teachers and the students.”

Already, distance learning is going more smoothly than it did in its first days. Teachers and families are getting more comfortable with the technology, and the initial kinks that typically go along with any new process are getting straightened out.

“At the beginning, it was very hit or miss,” said Justin Horne, a middle school math teacher. “But now, it’s becoming pretty seamless … We’re two weeks in and we’ve created a routine, and the kids know what to do now.”

New process

The login process is fairly simple. Horne’s students, for example, go to the middle school’s website, click on a hard-to-miss icon for the distance learning program, and then find Horne’s name on a list of all the school’s teachers. A quick click on his name takes the kids to a document listing all his class assignments for the week, with simple instructions on how to complete the assignments and links to the programs they’ll need to use.

The process is very similar for students at the high school. Students in these later grades are taught by multiple teachers and are often using a variety of online apps and programs, including Google Classroom, Schoology and other virtual resources that work best for whatever subject is being taught. The elementary schools have a slightly different approach, working almost entirely through a one-stop-shop remote learning program called Seesaw.

“For the most part, everybody is really good about logging on,” said Horne, echoing the teachers from the other schools.

The state is requiring that schools keep accurate attendance records, and teachers take attendance every day through online hangouts, phone calls and texts, and the completion of assignments. The schools, of course, also want to see that students are staying engaged.

“Our district is doing the best we can to make sure that we’re still providing a good school service for these kids,” Horne said.

Teachers said some students weren’t communicating with them when the distance learning program first went online, but the schools reached out to those families and, in most cases, the problem was due to “some technical issue of not knowing where to go or what to look for,” according to Horne. By now, the vast majority of those issues have been solved.

Getting used to the technology, and equipping their homes to handle online learning, isn’t something that only the families have to deal with. Many teachers, too, are adjusting to the requirements of distance learning. While some were already incorporating programs such as Schoology into their traditional classroom curriculum, they say going entirely online is a whole different ballgame. And for other teachers who weren’t using these programs at all before, the learning curve is sharp and fast.

It’s easy for teachers and principals to be sympathetic with families who are struggling to catch up, they said, because everybody’s in the same boat.

“This is brand new for all of us,” said Wolf, the high school principal. “I’m a brand new first year online principal. The staff are all first year online teachers. We’re going to be gentle in how we manage this … Our goal is to try to make this as painless as we can.”

“Since this is the first time, we’re not doing it wrong,” said Trisha Mariotti, the principal at Roosevelt. “We’re doing what we can to ... make it as simple and comfortable as possible for families, because this is all new to them, too.”

The district has been helping families that don’t have a computer or Internet access to get their hands on the technology needed for distance learning and, in cases where that’s not possible, students can still complete paper-based assignments, which can be picked up at the schools about once a week.