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Willmar teachers happy to start school, finding many changes because of coronavirus

Willmar teachers said this week nearly everything is different as they start a new school year, but they are still excited to see students. They haven't been a classroom with kids since the state's school closed in March.

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Jenna Bosch, a first-grade teacher at Roosevelt Elementary School, has her classroom ready for students. In-person classes for elementary students in Willmar start Thursday. Submitted photo / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — Using the same spot in the parking lot may be one of the only things that’s similar to previous years, according to Colten Klassen, a Willmar Senior High School science teacher.

Klassen and a group of teachers from across the Willmar School District agreed this week that it’s exciting to start the school year, but preparing for it is different from any other year. They were interviewed via Zoom conference call Thursday.

The cause of all the changes is the coronavirus pandemic. Schools everywhere are making adjustments to try to contain the spread of the coronavirus and COVID-19, the illness it causes.

School opens Tuesday with a hybrid learning model at Willmar Middle School, the Area Learning Center and at the Senior High. Half the students will be in the building Monday and Tuesday, the other half Thursday and Friday. When they aren’t in the school building, they will be studying via distance learning.

After two days of conferences with families, elementary schools will begin in-person instruction Thursday.

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Families may also choose to have their children go to school exclusively at home through distance learning. Teachers said their class lists change daily as families work through those decisions.

Next week will be the first time teachers have been in the same room with their students since early March, when the state’s school buildings were closed because of the pandemic.

How this works

“It’s really hard to think of something that has not changed,” said Pam Roehl, a first-grade teacher at Kennedy Elementary School. “From the minute they walk into the door to the minute they leave, there’s a different way of doing things this year.”

Class sizes may be one of the few things that haven’t changed, offered Elise Molden, a kindergarten teacher at Lakeland Elementary.

“There’s definitely more hand washing and wiping down surfaces, like all the time,” said Jenna Bosch, a first-grade teacher at Roosevelt Elementary.

At the elementary schools, Middle School and ALC, students will stay in their classrooms most of the day. Middle School and ALC teachers will rotate from one room to another, the reverse of the past.

Dylan Erickson-Thoemke, an 8th-grade geography teacher, said passing time between classes has been a big part of a kid’s social life, so that will be a change for them.

“It will be interesting to see how the closeness of those classmates develops, and (to see) where’s the wearing point,” said Amy Pahl, an ALC science teacher who is now an instructional coach, “because sometimes when humans are together for a long time, they get on each other’s nerves.”

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At the Senior High, students will still move through the halls from one class to the next, but it won’t be the same old crush of wall-to-wall students of the past. Teachers will release students a few at a time with orders to go directly to their next classes.

“The goal is, by the time you let the last kids out of your room, the first kids out should be at their next class,” Klassen said.

All students will eat breakfast and lunch in their rooms, except the high school. With half the students there at a time, students will be able to eat lunch in the cafeteria while social distancing.

Masks

Everyone will be required to wear face coverings in school buildings.

Elementary teachers see that as a challenge, especially in the beginning.

“In the past we’ve had issues with name tags, playing with name tags, chewing on name tags, losing name tags, “ said Jessica Schneider, a kindergarten teacher at Lakeland. “I think with the masks they will be similar.”

Five-year-olds don’t have enough control over their bodies, “they just don’t know how,” to understand how to properly use the masks, Molden said.

“Just like we have routines for things in the classroom and expectations, we’re going to have the same thing with masks,” Bosch said.

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Roehl said she hopes families are talking to their children about following rules and wearing the masks.

Let’s go outside

Elementary children will go out for recess two classes at a time. It will be one of the few times they will leave their classrooms each day.

With leaving their room only a couple of times a day, students could have some extra energy to burn off. It could be difficult to find ways to do that while maintaining social distancing, the teachers said.

Middle School teachers have been told they will have opportunities to teach outdoors, giving students a chance to leave their classrooms and get fresh air.

At the high school, going outside is allowed, but it’s not recommended for every day, because it adds extra traffic through the halls.

New methods

The high school will be using synchronous learning, with the same class taught to students in the building and at home each day. Teachers will have a Zoom meeting open during class, so all students will see and hear the same thing, Klassen said.

He smiled and added, “I can happily say I got my technology to work today, ... so I feel very confident for Tuesday.”

Pahl said the ALC will be using similar methods.

This fall, she said, she’s seen teachers finding new ways of doing things they may not have tried in the past, and she’s found it “super motivating and impressive.”

Elementary conference will help children and families learn to use the iPads the district bought for elementary students. Students will use them at home if the district switches to distance learning.

Uncertainty

If COVID-19 cases in the county spike, the school district may need to switch to another learning method on short notice. The teachers said they don’t like that uncertainty but said they have faith in the district’s leadership.

“Teachers like to plan,” Bosch said. “Not knowing the plan, it’s tough.”

“I feel confident,” Pahl said. “I know that whatever happens, somebody’s thought of things, and they’re doing a great job, just like everybody is, teachers, custodians, lunch people.”

The collaboration between different groups in the district is much higher than in the past, Klassen said.

“Everyone’s on the same page, the same team,” Erickson-Thoemke said. “We’ve got to step up and figure it out; nobody has all the answers.”

Pahl said the way people in the school district and in the community have come to have empathy and understand each other better might be the “silver lining” in the current situation.

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: lvanderwerf@wctrib.com or phone 320-214-4340
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