Teachers and students, back in school, are in a sprint to the finish of the school year

With the school year nearly over, teachers are working to gauge their students' progress after a year of upheaval during the pandemic. During the year, students, families and teachers have learned about each other and had to look to each other for support. Teachers at Roosevelt Elementary School in Willmar will tell you that they've all been through a lot.

Fourth grade student Nasteho Ahmednur, 10, works at her desk among classmates Tuesday April 27, 2021 at Roosevelt Elementary School in Willmar. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — Teachers at Roosevelt Elementary School are working to be as efficient as possible with about a month of school left.

“We have lots to get done in a limited time,” said second grade teacher Jenna Bernhagen. “We don't have time like we normally have; we have to look at where they are, what will help them be more successful.”

Because students spent so much time in distance learning this year, many have some catching up to do.

Principal Lori Lockhart and a group of teachers spoke in an after-school interview about returning to school after distance learning.

Teachers learned that it was easier to teach some subjects than others. It turned out teaching math wasn’t that difficult.


“I had less tears teaching math than reading,” Bernhagen said. “There were different barriers when it came to reading.”

Children were sent home with dice, protractors, rulers and other aids. Each had a small whiteboard and a marker. Those tools helped them understand concepts.

Reading was more difficult for the kids during distance learning.

At school, Lockhart said, students have a time set aside each day for reading. When they were home, that may not have been as consistent.

“We have awesome websites for reading material but a book is better,” said Kristen Egge, a third grade teacher.

But not all students had books at home, and the public library closed for a while.

The teachers said families and educators have endured a lot during the pandemic.

Some families were simply overwhelmed with multiple children going to school and parents trying to work inside or outside the home.


Teachers and parents became partners more than they ever had before, Egge said.

That worked better for some families than others, the teachers said.

“We’ve all endured a lot, and we’ve had to give ourselves grace,” Egge said. “Situations have been out of our control; (families) have had to take on a lot.”

Through technology, all involved have learned more about each other’s homes and families than ever before.

The teachers got to meet grandparents and older siblings who were looking after their students. They met lots of family pets, and students got to meet their teachers’ pets, too.

“Once they know you have a cat, it’s ‘where’s the kitty?’,” said Angie Kotzenmacher, an English Language teacher.

Kotzenmacher said she sometimes saw a parent or other family member sitting beside her students and learning English along with them.

The school district used federal pandemic funding last summer to provide iPads for all elementary students. Middle school and high school students have had school-issued iPads for several years.


When school buildings closed In spring 2020, elementary students went to school on the devices their families owned, whether it was a parent’s cell phone or an ancient laptop, and classes didn’t look the same on different devices.

With the iPads, everyone was looking at the same thing. Teachers and students had the advantage of starting the school year in person to become familiar with the iPads.

The new technology “helped us be more efficient and successful,” fourth grade teacher Kari Michelson said.

Kids whose families were in quarantine could still participate in school, and teachers learned to teach children in the classroom and at home at the same time.

The school district helped families with hot spots where internet access was a problem.

In distance learning, the teachers learned some sweet things about their students.

“The kids were so patient with each other,” Michelson said.

If one child was having trouble using Zoom, classmates would explain to them how to find the right page or manage their mute button.

“They were so supportive and tried their best,” Bernhagen said.

The teachers said the students’ patience and helpful nature continued when they returned to the school building.

The students have turned out to be very good at following the masking and distance requirements that allow them to be in school. Even young students have learned how to wipe off their desks before breakfast, before lunch and at the end of the day.

The hardest part for the adults and kids has been the distancing, the teachers said. There’s no hugging, and children don’t work in pairs or small groups. They can’t share writing utensils or other things.

Students have developed communications skills they might not have learned otherwise, she said. Seven-year-olds know how to write messages to each other or their teachers. Students who are normally shy have more ways to communicate.

Lockhart said some staff members struggled a bit but others found they had a previously undiscovered talent for teaching using technology.

The teachers said the staff members learned to lean on each other in different ways.

“We’ve become stronger as a group,” Lockhart said.

In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: or phone 320-214-4340
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