When distance learning has again needed to be one of the learning models this year due to the pandemic, the value is still personal connections with students, as Wadena-Deer Creek high school social worker Laura Kiser and fifth to 12th grade choir director Mike Ortmann said.

“The biggest goal is to see our kids and get connected with them and do the best we can to teach them what we can, but just making sure they’re OK and supported right now has kind of became a new priority for everybody,” Kiser said.

WDC students in all grade levels are in distance learning from Jan. 4-15. School administrators hope to limit the number of cases in the schools after families gathered with friends or family during the winter break. Prior to the break, Ortmann and Kiser shared about their distance learning experiences.

Mike Ortmann, fifth to 12th grade choir director.
Mike Ortmann, fifth to 12th grade choir director.

With distance learning comes plenty of screen time for students and staff, such as Ortmann’s schedule of Monday Zoom calls for 7th graders, Wednesday for 8th graders and both days for high school concert students.

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“It works out well when we can make connections with them (students) and touch base with them. Distance learning with Zoom and stuff we’re able to see their faces and I think that for me helps most is having that connection,” Ortmann said. “We still go on.”

Kiser adds the phone calls, too, where she is “making sure our kids are doing OK, doing the best they can.” She regularly connects with families about students not attending classes and checking on mental and emotional health issues along with teaching class twice a week.

In recent school board meetings, school administrators have noted the flexibility and collaboration of staff members, from bus drivers, nurses and custodians to teachers, coaches and paraprofessionals. The fall’s rise in positive COVID-19 cases included the middle/high school transitioning to hybrid learning, which principal Tyler Church described as “chaos” with staffing issues. The start of distance learning Fridays in December included staggered Zoom times for different grade levels, as elementary principal Louis Rutten said.

“We got to remember that they’re all in different situations. We’re trying to get that balancing act of giving them work but not too much work. I think it’s going fairly well,” Church said in the December school board meeting.

In the second week of distance learning in November, Church shared that 80-85% of students logged into their classes and students not logging in mostly did not have parents at home to help, which have increased the number of students failing classes. Tutoring over Zoom and possible in-person interventions are available.

Even with new iPads and Chromebooks for students—which are helping—Kiser said devices and stable internet connectivity remain issues. Students who have multiple siblings connecting and trying to attend classes and complete homework often mean they’re kicked off the internet and thus not in class, as Ortmann said. He sees their frustration with this and reminds them the technology piece is new for him too.

While students are able to connect with their teachers often, students are still missing their teacher being with them in the classroom or asking them a question in the hallway, as Kiser said. In the distance learning block schedule 7-12th grade students have four classes a day instead of seven and Fridays for individual meetings. The schedule comes after lessons from the spring, which parents have welcomed, according to Kiser.

Rachel Kern, counselor for Sebeka schools (left) and  Laura Kiser, social worker for WDC schools showed the film Screenagers (2016) March 19 at the Wadena Memorial Auditorium.
Michael Denny/Wadena Pioneer Journal
Rachel Kern, counselor for Sebeka schools (left) and Laura Kiser, social worker for WDC schools showed the film Screenagers (2016) March 19 at the Wadena Memorial Auditorium. Michael Denny/Wadena Pioneer Journal

“It just gives them more time with their teachers over Zoom, and also more time to complete their work so it’s not all hanging over their heads for homework later on,” Kiser said.

The changes are impossible without support from parents and family members. Kiser also noted the difficulties parents share as they’re not trained as teachers.

“That’s what I hear probably everyday is ‘I hated math in school, it’s hard for me,’” Kiser said.

One of the changes the school hears most about is the pause on sports, more so than when learning models change, as administrators noted in the November school board meeting. Ortmann said both students and staff members miss sports and activities. After a pause on sports started on Nov. 20, winter sports practices began on Jan. 4.

While missing aspects, connections between staff members is an encouragement in these different days, such as Secret Santa through school mailboxes, laughing about Zoom stories and hearing athletic director and dean of students Norm Gallant’s dad jokes. Students could also participate in Turkey Bingo and dress up days, even over Zoom.

“When kids are out for their 14 days of quarantine and they come back it’s so exciting,” Ortmann said about a way he and the students find encouragement. Prior to winter break, 5-6th graders were in in-person learning. “They’re excited to be back in school and we’re so excited to have them back in school that … kind of lifts the spirits a little bit.”

As people grapple with the adjusted way of life that brings anxiety, loss, anger and depression, try reaching out to someone about simply being there for you. Kiser encourages families to continue asking for mental health support as resources are available in the community.

“When you’re in this isolation, it’s that finding connection somehow,” Kiser said. “It’s even really hard for some of our families that have been connected with therapists and now they’re all online, you don’t get that same connection (as) in-person.”

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What about meals?

Meals will be delivered to students who signed up prior to winter break. The breakfast and lunch for each student are delivered Monday-Friday between 7:30-11:30 a.m. The school requests that you have a container outside your door or near the porch or steps for the meals to be placed in.

When does distance learning end?

The distance learning period at WDC is from Jan. 4-15. On Jan. 19: pre-K-6th grade students will return to in-person learning; 7-12th grade students will resume hybrid learning. Monday, Jan. 18 is a scheduled staff development day.

What local mental health resources are available?

If there is a mental health emergency in your home, you are encouraged to call 911 or the Mobile Crisis Line at 1-800-462-5525.

Wadena-Deer Creek Public Schools

Available Monday to Friday 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. by phone and email. Please leave a message when you call and they will get back to you as quickly as possible.

Monica Watson, Elementary School Social Worker 218-632-2164 or mwatson@wdc2155.k12.mn.us

Laura Kiser, High School Social Worker 218-632-2361or lkiser@wdc2155.k12.mn.us

Toni Kraska, High School Counselor 218-632-2171 or tkraska@wdc2155.k12.mn.us

Local Resources

Hope Center 218-631-7693

Northern Pines 218-631-1714 or for appointments 320-639-2025 or 833-316-0698

Someplace Safe 218-631-3311 or wadena.co@someplacesafe.info

Wadena County Mental Health Crisis 1-800-462-5525

Wellness in the Woods 218-296-2067 or info@mnwitw.org, Virtual Peer Support Network daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.