Educators had more time to plan for distance learning this fall than they did last spring, and local school leaders say that as a result, today’s distance learning program provides a more effective educational experience.

There’s a better-defined structure to online students’ school days now, they say, and more real-time virtual instruction than before. Greater opportunities for synchronous (livestream) interactions with their teachers and peers help students feel connected and engaged, and make their days at home more closely resemble the traditional, in-person classroom experience.

“After last year, we saw that we wanted a little more live (online) interaction with teachers, because we know that those relationships are critical,” said Renee Kerzman, director of curriculum, instruction and technology for Detroit Lakes Public Schools. “So we made that a priority this year.”

“We’re trying to be systematic in our approach,” she added. “It’s much more structured this year, that’s the big change.”

The Detroit Lakes School District first offered distance learning March 30, after a statewide order was enacted to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Schools closed March 17, and teachers had less than two weeks to design and implement an entirely new online-only curriculum.

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The general consensus of school officials, teachers, students and families at the end of last school year was that things went better than expected, but were not ideal. It was more of an emergency learning situation then.

It’s a different situation now, according to Mike Suckert, the principal at Detroit Lakes Middle School. Now, there's a whole school year ahead, and school leaders had a whole summer to plan for it.

“The big difference this time around is that everything we’ve done this year has been intentional,” Suckert said. “The planning has been done over a lot more time. . . . All the buildings had their staff highly involved in what this would look like. It was intentionally vetted, and was always done with the kids’ best experience in mind.”

Suckert said district administrators started meeting weekly in June to come up with a distance learning plan for the 2020-2021 school year: “Basically, as soon as we were done with last school year, we as administrators were...thinking of what we would have to do to make this happen. In July, we started meeting with staff.”

By August, he said, teachers were attending technology-related training sessions and hashing out the finer details of their distance learning plans in preparation for the start of school in mid-September.

By the governor’s orders, all schools in Minnesota must provide families with the option of distance learning full-time, even if local COVID case numbers are low and the schools are offering in-person instruction or a hybrid model.

Detroit Lakes Public Schools currently has in-person instruction at the two elementary schools, and is in a hybrid model at the middle and high schools.

About 400 students in the district are voluntarily distance learning full time right now -- 150 elementary school students and the rest middle and high school students, according to Karilee Traurig, the associate principal at Roosevelt Elementary and a leader behind both elementary schools’ COVID-19 plans. That’s about 14% of the district’s total enrolled 2,836 students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade (as reported to the school board earlier this week by Superintendent Mark Jenson).

At the elementary schools, there’s one teacher for every grade, kindergarten through fifth, that works specifically with distance learners. There are set times of the day when the teachers meet with their classes via livestream video conference to instruct on subjects like reading and math. Parents are sent daily communications about their kids’ schooldays, and teachers have designated “office times” when people can reach out with questions or concerns.

“It’s all about building relationships,” said Traurig. “The teachers have been very excited to come back, even if they’re distance learning, because of the relationships with them (their students). They’re doing live meetings, and having live interactions, and building those relationships.”

The middle and high schools are, “running a block schedule, so students have four periods a day instead of the traditional eight,” said Suckert. “That way students aren’t spending a lot of time logging in and out, and their time on task is maximized… It’s basically to simulate them being in the classroom as much as we can, and it seems to be working pretty well for us.”

Teachers at these hybrid-model schools are doing double-duty, instructing in-person students in tandem with distance learners. The instruction is usually “front-loaded,” Suckert said, meaning teachers talk about their day’s lesson at the start of an online class and then leave time at the end for students to work on their assignments and ask questions.

Most of the teachers use Google Meet for live group communications, he said; depending on the nature of the day’s lesson, the kids at home may not only interact in real-time with their teachers, but also their peers in the classrooms. An English teacher, for example, may want all of his or her students to be part of a class discussion about the day’s reading assignment.

“It’s up to the teacher,” Suckert said.

For the most part, teachers throughout the district are working from their schools, not their homes. But there are certain situations, Suckert said, where a teacher may work from home or do a little of both. Right now at the high school, he said, there are one or two teachers who are quarantined at home but continuing to instruct online, while a proctor monitors their in-person students at the school.

Attendance is taken at all the schools, every day. And if a student “isn’t as engaged as we want them to be,” Suckert said, the school will reach out and try to find out why.

Not all students excel at distance learning, he added, “and we’ve already had some...distance learners coming back to that face-to-face model, because kids aren’t necessarily made that way. They miss their friends, they miss their teachers, they like social interaction.”

The distance learning program is constantly evolving, Suckert said, and district leadership continues to meet regularly to review how things are going and brainstorm about how to meet new needs that arise.

"We’re working on getting better every day," he said. "We’re working every day to overcome every obstacle that is in front of us. We’re not static.”

So far, he added, “The feedback we’re getting from staff and students and parents is, ‘It’s going better than we anticipated.' . . . We have been pleasantly surprised at how well it has gone."

"I really appreciate that our families have been so supportive, and our community in general," said Kerzman. "This has been a huge undertaking."