It’s no secret that this school year has been difficult on students, staff and families due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Recently, the entire Waseca and Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton school districts have moved to full time distance learning and it’s challenging for some students.
Waseca Superintendent Eric Hudspith said there are fewer failures this fall compared to last spring, but distance learning isn’t working for all students.
The school year began with students in hybrid learning, but due to increasing COVID-19 cases in Waseca County, school administration decided to move fully online for the safety of everyone. Starting in hybrid learning allowed students to build relationships with teachers prior to moving online.
At the Dec. 3 Waseca School Board meeting, Hudspith said a problem-solving team in the district is working on outreach to those students who are failing, missing work and not connecting with teachers.
“The students have been so eager to learn and that has motivated both students and staff and the fall has been a great success,” Hartley Elementary Principal Ben O’Brien said. “We have worked hard to support gaps in learning, and the mental health of students as relationships and student connection remain a top priority during this pandemic.”
At Hartley Elementary School, the students were able to be in-person four days a week prior to moving to distance learning. While in-person, O’Brien said the school focused on the review of standards for the spring and the retention of the skills learned during last spring by the students.
Waseca Intermediate School Principal John Huttemier said that distance learning has allowed students to figure out how to organize their own learning schedule and how they best learn to accomplish goals.
“These events have taught kids to learn for the sake of learning with support from teachers,” Huttemier said.
He said students are learning the content better this fall in distance learning compared to last spring because teachers have improved their virtual content delivery and recognize which students need extra support.
Students aren’t getting through as much content that they would if in-person learning was happening and they will need to work on catching up on that, but overall teachers are making daily contacts with students to offer support.
Throughout the district, there are barriers students face while learning at home, such as lack of internet connection or a quiet space to work in, and at WIS administration has started to bring in the students that need help.
Students who have been identified are brought onsite to WIS where they are able to work in three hour blocks with teachers or in an environment that works for them. These students are able to be in the building multiple times a week to work with teachers and needed resources.
“If we have the majority of our kids that are able to do distance learning at home, we are able to isolate and focus on the students that are struggling on site and they are able to see success as well,” Huttemier said. “We are feeling good about what we are doing with it and ideally with that being said we want to get our students back on site, but we need to do the most with what we have right now with independent learning time.”
The Waseca Junior Senior High School is identifying students who need more assistance during distance learning through a process of sending out a message with resources and letting the students know teachers, counselors, principals and other staff are there to support them, followed by a letter home or even conducting a home visit to check-in on students.
“We want to support the students and we want to support families as best as we can, but we need to know what they need,” WJSHS Principal Jason Miller said.
All students in distance learning have a checklist to accomplish: attendance, checking classes, turning in assignments and reaching out to teachers if needed.
Based on the student survey responses, Miller said some students are thriving and enjoying the distance learning model, but overall students missed being in school for the social aspect that it provided.
JWP students are doing better this fall with distance learning than last spring, but there are students struggling with their grades still.
JWP High School Principal Grant Hanson said the students felt more prepared this fall for distance learning compared to last spring and the resources available are more extensive.
“It feels like things were prepared and ready to go and kids were used to doing distance learning this fall, but that doesn’t make it better, it’s still not ideal,” Hanson said. “I think it’s clear that everyone would prefer to be in the building.”
He shared that some students are struggling with distance learning and those students are being reached out to, but for some they are doing well with the new learning model.
Each student at JWP has an advisor that they check-in with weekly and recently Hanson and JWP Elementary Principal Jeremy Erler sent out a newsletter with resources from a school counselor, social worker and psychologist for families and students.
The students and staff of Waseca Public Schools have been in distance learning for a little over a week and will continue to do so for the coming week at least.
Superintendent Eric Hudspith said during the Dec. 3 Waseca School Board meeting that there were eight active current cases among staff and students, with 35 in quarantine.
Hudspith said that beginning the week of Dec. 7, they should be able to consider potential return dates to hybrid, in-person learning or bringing certain schools back. He said he is hopeful to get a few December in-school days if they can, but the impact Thanksgiving has on case numbers and how the county is doing will dictate if students have to wait until after winter break for a change in learning models.
“I want no more than to have students back in our buildings as soon as it’s appropriate,” Hudspith said. “The absolute last thing that we would want to do is come back to school for a week and a half or two weeks thinking we were in a better spot than we were and have to make a quick rebound.”
He has a goal to bring students back to the buildings as soon as possible, but he wants to do it in a safe manner. One thing that is changing is certain students will return to the building during the week of Dec. 7. The students coming back to the building could be special education students, English Language learners or those who need additional help from teachers.
“We are strategically looking at who we can bring back into our buildings beginning next week, special education, EL, intervention students,” Hudspith said. “We’ve been very cautious to not overdo that list, knowing that we want them all here (in the buildings) and they could all benefit from being here.”
Each school in the district is approaching bringing certain students back into the building differently.
At Hartley Elementary and at the Waseca Intermediate School, specific students will be asked to come in by specific teachers based on special education and intervention needs. Students needing help at the high school level in the specific groups, will be able to make appointments with the necessary teachers and are able to come in groups of up to nine.
Along with bringing some students back into the buildings, the paraprofessionals have been able to assist with helping the younger students in child care with their schooling during the day. Hudspith said the district is currently supporting all Tier 1 workers child care needs.
Hudspith also praised food service workers during the meeting. Since moving to full distance learning for the district, all kids under 18 have been able to receive numerous meals for the day.
“I could not be any more proud to be part of a district that has really gone above and beyond, that if we can provide a service for kids we’re going to,” Hudspith said.
Food Service Director Jason Forshee shared that during the first week of full distance learning from Nov. 30- Dec. 4, a daily average of 437 breakfasts and lunches were given to students. The food service is still providing meals for child care and those who will be coming back to the buildings during the week of Dec. 7.
These meals can be picked up at Hartley Elementary or the WJSHS between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. daily with sheds recently set up to keep the staff warm and sheltered from the elements.
Another addition with distance learning is pop-up pick-up sites for the meals using two buses and a van. From 11 to 11:20 a.m. a pop-up will be at University Park, NW Park and in the TEAM Academy parking lot and from 11:30 to 11:50 a.m. the pop-up will be in Southview Park, Loon Lake Park and NE Park.
“I would say as I’ve been in buildings, as I talk to staff and principals this week, if there was a way to snapshot where we were in March and April and even September when we had a two-week break at the Junior Senior High to where we are now, by no means do we have all the answers, we don’t, but we have made incredible growth,” Hudspith said. “We want our students back in school, that’s where we obviously want our students, we miss them dearly everyday and this is the best option right now and I feel that what we are providing is an improved experience from what we had this spring.”
As students have moved to distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, school extracurricular activities in Waseca have also moved online.
Students at Waseca Junior Senior High School aren’t able to meet in person for club meetings or practices, but services like Zoom have let activities continue like normal.
Mock Trial, Business Professionals of America and DECA have moved to the online service Zoom for their meetings.
“I am happy we still get to have a season because coaching these amazing students is one of my favorite things in life,” Mock Trial advisor and attorney Rusty Hardeman said. “It has been difficult trying to adapt to the changes in the competition rules in structuring practices.”
Mock Trial, also known as Law Team, has retained membership despite the challenges of competition during COVID-19 and distance learning and practicing. The team was able to meet twice in-person before moving to virtual meetings.
The advisors for the Law Team are still working on the virtual practice schedule and structure, but they plan to still provide students with the experience and education of the legal system. It’s also unclear how competitions will work for Mock Trial this season, but Waseca students will continue to prepare.
“It has definitely been more difficult for the students,” Hardeman said of this year. “They have not been able to have the same interaction with the coaches and their fellow team members that we have had in the past. I really commend our new team members for sticking with the team and working on their own as we transition to our distance practices. I am always extremely impressed with how hard-working and dedicated the students are to the team.”
BPA is scheduled to compete at the state level in-person like a typical competition year, but first the regional competition will be held at each school’s own building with judges virtually present. Regional competition was pushed back a month to allow for additional prep time.
Students will record their presentations and submit the content to the judges, while all tests will be taken on the computer and those competing in the interview section will be live over Zoom or Google Meet with a judge conducting the interviews. The regional competition would be held in Rochester in a typical year.
BPA advisor Sandy Schumacher said the club’s membership took a slight dip, but there are still 38 students competing this year.
“I’m actually kind of excited and happy to be able to do something,” Schumacher said. “We’re going to do the best we can.”
DECA will also move to a virtual competition that is scheduled for Jan. 13, 2021. For the role play event, where students are given a scenario that they must present a solution to the judges, will be done through Google Meet. The prepared competitions students will prepare a written 10-15 page document detailing the idea and then record a presentation that they will submit to the judges.
DECA advisor Donna Hodgkins continues to work with the students to help prepare them for their competitions in January.
The Waseca high school art team continues to work on outside art projects with winter meetings moving online.
In the fall the students were able to paint downtown windows for the Treats on the Streets event along with Itron, which they are now tasked to paint with a winter theme.
“I and the students are hoping to return to our ‘old normal’ and wish we could all meet in person for our weekly scheduled meetings,” WJSHS Art Teacher and Art Team Advisor Jen Popp said. “There is a hole in our lives when we don’t meet regularly and this impacts our relationships, our artwork and our mental health. I’m hoping that with virtual meetings we can create a ‘new normal’ that will fulfill some of this hole.”
Virtual meetings will start this winter and students are able to pick up supplies from the high school if needed, otherwise Popp said most students have their own supplies at home already.
Scheduling events for art team has been challenging according to Popp because all of the students are on different schedules for school, activities and work. There is a core group of about 10 students who are able to participate consistently with up to 20 students who want to attend, but struggle to make the meeting times work with their schedule.
Competitions for the art team will also look different due to COVID-19 restrictions and precautions.
The annual December Waseca Schools show at the Waseca Art Center is not happening this year and it is uncertain if the Spring High School Art Show will happen either.
Popp added a virtual art show for the art team to participate that is sponsored by Minnesota State University Moorhead. Student work will be dropped off in early January and students will have the opportunity to attend a virtual workshop at the end of the month.
She also shared that student artwork creations have dropped during this time of distance learning due to the lack of meetings. Popp is hoping to place student works around town on display for people to see when there is a space and enough work to display.
“Creating artwork on their own is challenging because students thrive on mentor and peer critiques,” Popp said. “They get excited for positive feedback and are then pushed to complete their pieces. Without these crucial interactions, the production rate has decreased. I’m hoping with regularly scheduled virtual meetings this winter, students will feel inspired and continue to strive for excellence in their work.”