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Schools turning to distance learning

After Gov. Tim Walz’s announcement Wednesday that he had issued a shelter at home executive order, schools across the state will now have to adapt to educating their students through distance learning.

The two week stint  of sheltering at home began Friday night at 11:59 p.m. Austin will join the rest of Minnesota’s districts in distance learning on March 30 and, with some luck and hope, will be back in classrooms on May 4 depending on the COVID-19 situation.

In the meantime, however, Austin is prepared to carry out the rest of the season through a combination of online tools and packets that have been sent home with parents.

“We’re using a multitude of different things,” said Superintendent David Krenz. “It’s not just technology and people need to understand that. Last Friday, all of our elementary schools sent out packets of info and work to students and families.”

While the elementary schools will be relying more on take home information with some technological elements, the secondary students in the Austin district, from IJ Holton Intermediate School on up, will be leaning more heavily on technology to receive educational materials.

Some of the programs students will be using include SeeSaw, Zoom and Schoology, which will give students the online capacity to receive instruction.

This will be paired with the ability of students to contact teachers through emails and chats each day.

However, it’s important to note the difference between e-learning and distance learning.

“It’s called distance learning  and the reason is there are different statues that govern the different types of learning that can done,” Krenz said E-learning is specific to weather related events.”

These are not new concepts, however, as APS has been making use of these tools for e-learning during inclement weather such as snow storms.

“Each is a little bit different,” Krenz said. “As the kids get older, there are more opportunities to use technology. The high school, which has been using Schoology the longest, would be utilizing that most.”

This has given Austin a bit of a running start as both students and teachers are familiar with the technology, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t going to be some drawbacks, including the scope of the organization that’s needed to pull out the threads together.

The need to use distance learning will also take away that teacher-student interaction that is so important to learning.

“That has been really critical to students being able to interact and question the teacher and each other on the thought process and on the learning process,” Krenz said. “(Distance learning) just isn’t the same as when you’re face to face.”

There is also the challenge of ensuring students are able to keep up with the work or even do the work in the first place, but within the district’s distance learning plan are ways to ensure teachers can check in with their students and make sure the work is being done.

“Built into those systems are daily check-ins,” Krenz said. “Programs like SeeSaw, students can read a story or a book and a teacher can see that happen.”

The effort to move to the distance learning platform has been a challenge and it’s not lost on Krenz the amount of work teachers and support staff have put into this change of learning, even though there is some apprehension to the new style of teaching.

This is especially true considering schools didn’t get the word that distance learning would be employed until the same day that Walz made his announcement — Wednesday.

“A lot of it is facing the challenge,” Krenz said. “Put our nose to the grindstone, get the work done and move on from there. Where you see the biggest issues is the fear and not knowing. Didn’t find out until (Wednesday) that distance plans would be happening March 30.”

Either way, Krenz is proud of the district as a whole when it comes to the plans in place.

“Everybody knows they are in it together,” Krenz said. “It makes me proud and makes everybody proud to see how everybody has stepped up.”