On Monday, March 30, the Montevideo School District's new distance learning program went into effect. With the risk COVID-19 poses to the community, as well as the rest of the world, school districts everywhere are closing, and some have chosen to continue implementing ways for students to continue their education in the meantime. Montevideo is one of those districts, and the staff, along with administration has been working diligently to get things up and running again.

On Monday, March 30, the Montevideo School District’s new distance learning program went into effect. With the risk COVID-19 poses to the community, as well as the rest of the world, school districts everywhere are closing, and some have chosen to continue implementing ways for students to continue their education in the meantime. Montevideo is one of those districts, and the staff, along with administration has been working diligently to get things up and running again.

According to Super­intendent Dr. Luther Heller, the current distance learning program is an extension of the snow day e-learning program that has been in place for the past four years.

“The exception is that we’ve expanded it, so now all of our students have a device at home,” said Dr. Heller. “If they didn’t have a device, if they were in lower than grade 5 and didn’t have a device at home, we provided them with a Chromebook, or for kindergarteners, a tablet.”

With the help of Scott Ripley, the schools were able to ensure that all students were able to access high-speed internet from their home.

“Each school sent out surveys and were contacted about internet availability,” said Scott Hickey, principal of Montevideo High School. “We were able to find all the providers for all the areas our students are from, and were able to find options for the students without internet accessibility. For example, Charter is providing free internet for anyone with a student in grades K-12.

“The next step was ensuring all students had a device to use at home. All kids in grades 4-12 were issued Chromebooks, and we ended up sending about 90 Ramsey students home with them as well so they could have access to the curriculum,” continued Hickey.

The district has made sure that each of its students are able to continue their education during this pandemic and make sure there is still regular contact between teachers and students.

“We want interaction on a daily basis so that we can maintain those relationships with the kids,” said Heller. “All of our teachers are expected to be available for students to get in touch with them during the typical school hours, because even though they put the lessons out, there are still going to be students that have questions, and when questions come up they need to be able to get ahold of their teachers.”

The teachers will be working remotely, stated Heller, so they are also able to access the technology from their homes if they so choose.

According to Heller, if students need to contact their teacher, they will be able to do so either by phone or email. Students who choose to do so over the phone will call their school phone number, leave a message, and the teachers will be checking their messages regularly and respond as promptly as they are able.

“As far as expectations,” said Heller, “there are some to the amount of time students put in; it’s not entirely a well-regimented class schedule, but rather something that can have some flexibility too.”

“We had the advantage of most of our students having 1:1 devices and implementing virtual learning snow days,” said Hickey. “We’ve had to adapt, but what we decided was the teachers will lay out their expectations by 8 a.m. each morning on Google Classroom, and students will have until 11:59 that night to finish the day’s assignments, unless the deadline stated for the assignment is due another day.”

Hickey said they wanted to make it as much like a normal day as possible, but with the flexibility the current social circumstance requires.

Hickey said, “Each day the teacher will ask a question for attendance, the students will log in and answer the question, and the teachers will check it by 9 a.m. the following day.”

If students are not checking in, as well as failing to complete their assignments, the schools will call home and stress the importance of participation and completion of the students’ work.

“This way we are giving them more flexibility, as well as responsibility. With the current situation, there are a lot of people with extra responsibilities, such as watching younger siblings. We want to be flexible with the students, and we sent them a message saying that this is an opportunity to grow and learn,” said Hickey.

The teachers worked collaboratively to develop a program they felt would be most beneficial.

“For example,” explained Heller, “the 3rd grade teachers would have worked together on what methods were best within their grade level, so there are similarities in that respect. Within the high school, there was collaboration among teachers who teach similar subjects. Every teacher, of course, has unique things they cover within their class, but what they did was share ideas.”

According to Heller, Dr. Vera Webber, the district’s technology integration specialist, was a big help when it came to showing what they could do online and how to utilize the technology.

“There are some similarities among them, but they’re also unique to each teacher,” Heller said. “We had the better part of two weeks for our teachers to prepare for this, and it was refreshing to see the way they pulled together the ideas and the way they worked collaboratively to help each other as they put together the ideas we all put into this distance learning plan. I think we have a lot to be proud of with staff and the way they worked on that.”

As of right now, the distance learning program is only expected to be in place until May 5.

“The Department of Education commissioner does have the latitude to extend this to the end of the school year if things haven’t improved by then, or if, indeed, things have gotten worse,” stated Heller. “I believe that as we move forward we will continue to fine-tune what we’re doing, and so, should the need arise for us to go beyond the end of April with distance learning, I think we will be able to adapt and improve as we go forward.”

The district has had the advantage of having had practice in previous years with e-learning snow days, and Heller noted how much better the teachers have gotten when it comes to lesson delivery using technology.

“We’ve always had the strong teachers, but some of them aren’t quite as used to using the technology and now have had the chance to utilize it more.”

He also stated that, with the help of Dr. Webber, it has helped them progress a great deal, and their ability and capacity to continue utilizing it will only grow. “While we don’t know what the future will bring, we do see this as a means of being more innovative, doing some things a little differently,” Dr. Heller said, “and so it may change how we do things ingthe future. I think it’s a positive from that aspect.” Principal Hickey also likes to look at the optimistic side of the current situation.

“What everyone is going through will help them have more experiences to bring back with them into ‘regular education’ when the time comes,” he said. “This is an opportunity for growth, to utilize the technology and create experiences. We’re all engaging in teamwork; the parents, the students, the teachers, the administration, and in the end we are going to come out stronger.”

Both Heller and Hickey are in agreement that this is an opportunity to try new things and see what positive developments come about, from both the students and the staff. It is certain that with their combined efforts, in addition to the community of Monte­video, this is going to provide more educational opportunities, as well as provide more growth and flexibility in years to come.