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Park Rapids School Board looks at e-days, distance learning

High school math teacher Dan Etter (left), sixth grade teacher Eric Pilgrim and kindergarten teacher Ky Deblieck explain the advantages of e-days and distance learning at Tuesday's school board meeting. (Robin Fish/Enterprise)

The Park Rapids Area School Board, meeting Feb. 19, discussed alternatives to canceling school due to weather.

Teachers Dan Etter (high school math), Eric Pilgrim (sixth grade) and Ky Deblieck (kindergarten) shared how e-days and distance learning days can enable students to work on class assignments at home.

High School Principal Jeff Johnson distinguished between the two, noting that e-days are for a "non-planned out," such as a snow day, while distance learning is for a "planned out," such as when a teacher goes on a trip or the school shuts down to host a competition.

For example, Etter said, "Typically, a substitute teacher is not going to teach new content for me. So, if I know that I'm going to be gone, I can do two topics the day before I'm gone, and give them time and resources to work. A distance learning day could look like that, where they already have the instruction; now, go practice."

Etter said they discussed these options with school staff and got good feedback about them. "It sounds like, as a whole, we could make it work and make it very productive," he said.

He noted that many teachers are already making effective use of Google Classroom, email and the mass communication features of the Synergy student information system "to communicate not only with the kids, but with the parents."

Etter said teachers are open to using e-days and distance learning, but some departments (including physical education) are looking for guidance about how to proceed.

Johnson said teachers will receive some technology training over the summer. "Maybe we can touch on that a little bit," he said.

Superintendent Lance Bagstad said the issue has come up because of this school year's snow days. "The schools in southern Minnesota who have, in the past few years, really struggled with getting school days in, have piloted these e-learning days, or distance learning days. The Legislature did, in 2018, approve as part of school days up to five e-learning days."

Pilgrim described how these options might look at the middle school level. For examples of the type of assignments teachers could give, he said:

• A language arts teacher "could send out a journal prompt — write a one-page response."

• Reading: "Read for a half-hour, log it, have a parent sign it."

• Math: "A lot of our math curriculum is using online technology through IXL, which they can assign and teachers can monitor student progress."

• Science and social studies: "There's a lot of online research that you can do. Because sixth grade has Minnesota history, you can say, 'Find 10 facts about Minnesota that occurred on this day in history.' That alone is going to give that kid enough time to make up for that class."

• Band and choir: The teachers have said that if it's a distance learning day, which you know is coming up in advance, "they can give assignments like, 'Take your instrument home and practice,' or 'Videotape yourself playing or singing certain songs,' and that's going to be the proof that you did it."

• Physical education: "Our staff are very open to many things like, 'Check your heart rate. Do 30 minutes of activity. Log your activity.' Or, 'Create a new game. Explain the directions to the game. Talk about what you did when you come back.' Just a fitness journal log. You could do a calorie count in the food that you ate that day. Bring some math into your nutrition."

• STEM: "The technology teacher talked about doing coding online. She's got websites that they use."

Subject areas where it may not be easy to plan e-days or distance learning assignments, Pilgrim said, include special education and industrial arts.

"One problem that we might run into," he said, "is if kids don't have access to technology. If it's a planned day, we can send things home ahead of time, so that kids will have either internet access or paper access."

If the kids don't have access to online materials for an unplanned e-day, he said, the alternative may be just to give them four days to make up their work for that day.

Pilgrim estimated that about 90 percent of students have access to online technology at home, especially through phones. "They may not have WiFi, but they have access through their phone network," he said.

Deblieck said that at the elementary level, staff talked about sending K-2 students home with an enrichment packet to work on in case of a snow day. She said that most likely, all students in each pod will receive the same packet.

"Third and fourth grade could possibly use the Google classroom," she said. "We do have ways to communicate with parents."

Deblieck said more planning is needed to prepare supplemental material for days out.

Pilgrim noted that by state law, teachers must be available via internet and phone during school hours to answer questions and supervise students' work.

Board chair Sherry Safratowich recalled talking with a Park Rapids graduate who teaches science in Stewartville, where school has often been closed by weather this year. "He has folders on his computer that are just ready to go," she said. "He said, 'It might not be exactly what I'm teaching, but it's something that's permanent.'"

Safratowich said the teacher expects students in each class section to turn in their assignments due by the end of the hour when they would have been in class.

Pilgrim emphasized that on a snow day, "the work might not be as strenuous as they're getting in the classroom, but it's probably going to be a more productive day than May 30" — a reference to snow-day replacement days being added at the end of the school year.

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