Life as a teacher and student in the Mitchell School District has looked a lot different in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak that prompted nationwide school closures.

Over the past week, Bobby Reindl, a fifth-grade teacher at Longfellow Elementary School, has been adapting to a relatively new method of education that he’s delivering to his students through a process known as eLearning. Although his day typically begins with turning on the lights in his classroom each morning, followed by fine-tuning the lesson plans he has drummed up for the day, that has all changed since the nationwide outbreak of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus, which caused the Mitchell School District to close its doors for two weeks in effort to reduce the threat of spreading the virus.

On Monday, Reindl began teaching his fifth-grade students from home via his laptop, marking the start of a unique challenge to deliver the same lesson plans and educational outcomes for his students away from the classroom.

“The eLearning programs and apps we have are great tools for our students, but you can’t replace a teacher,” Reindl said in an interview with The Daily Republic. “Turning solely to eLearning for an extended period of time is not ideal for us teachers, but we are in a better position to do this type of teaching today than we have ever been.”

If there is one school district in the state that has the capacity and technological resources to accommodate a successful eLearning experience during the temporary school closure, Reindl said it’s Mitchell.

From being the first public school district in South Dakota to disperse laptop computers to every student from grades seven to 12, to implementing a number of education apps for eLearning enhancement, the Mitchell School District has been a pioneer in embracing technology and education, thanks to Superintendent Joe Graves.

While the school closures are far from ideal and have put the local teachers and students in a challenging, unique scenario, Graves said the Mitchell School District’s familiarity with eLearning has helped ease the transition away from the classroom.

“I think it’s been huge, because our teachers and students became very used to these kinds of education practices. They had already developed familiarity with apps and computer programs like Successmaker and had used different forms of assessments and programs,” Graves said. “The one-to-one program really built a lot of capacity among our teachers, who are very familiar, adept and enthusiastic about the program.”

The Mitchell School District welcomed laptops and one-to-one education in 2006. Joining Mitchell as the first South Dakota public schools to implement a laptop program in 2006 was Watertown School District, which provided laptops for its high school students. After seeing the successful outcomes students and teachers were experiencing, Graves eventually expanded the dispersal to every student in the public school district from kindergarten through high school about three years ago.

When Gov. Kristi Noem recommended all schools close down following the state’s first several confirmed cases of COVID-19 on March 10, one of which included a Mitchell resident between the ages of 30 and 39, Graves said he had confidence that the roughly 200 educators he oversees were prepared to adjust their teaching methods. As of Friday, the total number of positive COVID-19 cases climbed to 14. Although the virus has disrupted the traditional classroom education setting for all grade levels, Graves has been impressed with the response from the teachers in the Mitchell School District.

“They have responded splendidly, and I can’t say that enough,” Graves said. “From kindergarten to senior high, everybody asked how we can get the best instruction that we can to these kids during a long-term school closure. And they have really done that, and the communication has been direct, appropriate and technology-based."

Process of eLearning

Despite being removed from the classroom, Reindl is responsible for continuing teaching his lesson plans and assigning daily course work for his students.

The Chromebook laptops that Reindl’s students possess are equipped with a myriad of applications that allow for multiple avenues of eLearning. According to Graves, daily assignments and coursework are graded during the school closure just as they would be on a typical school day.

For Reindl, perhaps one of the most vital computer programs installed in the students' Chromebook laptops is Hapara, an education workspace that enables teachers to organize their students' assignments, while tracking their daily scholastic activity and progress.

“I can manage my students and have the ability to see what screens or tabs my students are on,” Reindl said of the Hapara program. “I can also close out anything a student is browsing on when they are supposed to be working on course work and assignments, so it is important for me to monitor it closely.”

After day one of eLearning during the school closure, Reindl was pleased to see all of his fifth-grade students had completed and submitted their assignments on time. While the early stages of online class are moving along swiftly, Reindl is aware his students may need some extra motivation further into the school closure.

“They are young kids yet, and everyone knows how much energy they had at that age. And being home away from the classroom can bring more distractions, which requires more self discipline,” he said. “I’m asking a lot of them to stay disciplined enough to focus on their school work and progress away from the classroom, but they understand the situation, which is key.”

When a student is stuck on a math problem or has trouble with an English assignment, a Google Classroom chat room is at the fingertips of his students, which is one primary communication method that allows for Reindl to work through any problems or questions his students may have. While the chat room is an important communication method for Reindl and his students, he said the face-to-face classroom setting is irreplaceable when it comes to working through any scholastic-related problems or questions.

As a teacher, preparing for a potential pandemic isn’t something that one expects to be on the horizon, considering there have been so few in the United States, Reindl added. Even more challenging is preparing fifth-graders to handle such a unique crisis, Reindl said. Nonetheless, the 13-year educator spent ample time explaining to his students about the severity surrounding COVID-19.

“I told them how our kindergartners, first- and second-graders and so on really do look up to them. And they will start to panic if they see them panicking, so I stressed to them how important it is to be calm and stay away from the widespread misinformation that’s rampant right now,” he said. “They all have phones, and they are smart kids, so they have access to the disinformation that’s going around right now.”

In a time of crisis, Reindl has called on his students to become active leaders for the younger kids who look up to them. And they have responded in a big way.

When the students return to the classroom, which Reindl hopes will be soon, there will be additional hand sanitizers scattered across the room to maintain the efforts of combating the potential spread of the highly-contagious virus.

For Misty and Ryan Zilla, the school closures have drastically altered their daily lives, just as it has for many parents with kids in the midst of the spring semester. The young couple has been juggling their full-time careers, while taking on the responsibility to motivate three of their kids who all attend schools in the Mitchell School District.

"You suddenly have to reorganize your life and your traditional schedule," Ryan Zilla said. "My wife and I have to really help each other out and plan our schedules more closely to handle working and making sure the kids stay on top of their school work. The laptops and lesson plans are planned out well, which is a big help."

Fortunately, Misty Zilla has been able to transition her career away from her work location at Avera Queen of Peace hospital during the virus scare. Working from home has allowed Misty to watch over her kids, while Ryan continues working at Toshiba during the school closure.

"It's very challenging having to get your work done, while making sure your child is working on their school assignments," Misty Zilla said, noting she is thankful for the roles teachers play for her children. "You have to adjust to cooking a lot more during the day, but I'm grateful Ryan and I are able to have jobs that allows one of us to be working from home."

As a senior at Mitchell High School, Kenna Mentzel, the Zillas' second oldest daughter who is living at home, is handling the school closure as best as she can. Although Mentzel said she has built enough life skills to handle her school work outside of the classroom, it's not how she and her fellow classmates envisioned their final semester of high school would unfold.

"We are doing the best we can, but if the closure lasts all semester, it would be really terrible to miss out on prom, graduation and other life moments like those," Mentzel said. "I know there is so much worse things going on with this virus right now, but it does feel like we would be a little robbed if we miss out on those things."

Despite the unique challenges the Zilla family has been adapting to over the course of the virus outbreak and school closure, the Zilla family has found a silver lining through it all: more family time.

"We've been able to spend more quality time as a family, and we always find something interesting to do," Ryan Zilla said. "It's made me appreciate what we have as a family."

Accommodating to students' needs

While every K-12 student attending Mitchell public schools is provided with a laptop equipped with the education-based programs and software that allows for teachers to communicate and teach lesson plans from a remote location, not every student has access to the internet. However, it is just one of many unique situations that Graves has a process in place to accommodate and provide eLearning opportunities for the respective students who lack internet access.

“We provide as much of our lesson plans as we can in the form of paper packets,” Graves said. “We are also exploring now how we can add internet access to those homes so they can use a computer.”

In previous years, Graves said, the school district worked with the parents and guardians of the students who lack internet access to offer a reduced price through working with Mitchell Telecom. However, Graves said there was a lack of interest from the respective people who were offered a reduced price for internet access.

Providing the adequate needs for students who have developmental disabilities or learning disabilities is another unique challenge that some school districts have come up against during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Students who are in special education or are on an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP), they have a teacher assigned to them,” he said. “Those teachers have reached out to those students and parents to adjust the program for them during this time.”

Although Graves said the collective response from the school district’s teachers and administration is going smoothly thus far, he pointed to specific classes that aren’t easily taught through eLearning such as art and music as a challenge.

“It’s certainly not perfect, and I wish every child had access to the internet. I’m sure we will have some computers that for one reason or another aren’t functioning properly and we will need to get technicians involved,” Graves said. “There are certain classes that don’t work as well outside the classroom with just computers, like pottery and clay working.”

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, several scholastic web-based companies have been offering free access for students to continue learning during the school closures. Graves said many of the free programs being offered are already installed in the students laptops. However, Graves said the school district compiled a list of about 50 learning websites and programs like Math Playground and ReadWorks on the L.B. Williams Elementary School webpage under the student resources tab.

Providing nutrition amid school closures

The nationwide school closures caused by the virus have brought to light how important school lunches and breakfasts are for some students. In fact, school meals can serve as the only forms of nutrition for some.

Graves is well aware of that, considering he led some of the efforts for the school district to provide free breakfasts and lunches for students in need during the COVID-19-caused school closures. On the district’s first day of deciding to close its doors at the recommendation of Gov. Noem, Graves was proud to begin offering students free lunches and breakfasts via door exchange to respect the social distancing recommended by the Center of Disease Control (CDC). Ideally, Graves said, the school district would maintain the free hot meal program throughout the duration of the school closure.

According to Graves, breakfasts are served from 8 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., while lunch is served from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Considering the timeline for students and teachers to return to the classroom at Mitchell public schools as of now is anticipated for March 30, Graves is hopeful to return to more normalcy in the near future. When and if the return date arrives, Graves said all of the school will have undergone a deep clean to reduce the spread of the virus.

“The governor recommended school closures and did not mandate them,” Graves said, praising the Gov. Noem’s decision to recommend. “We are going to continue to work with the governor’s office, and follow the recommendations that she provides because she is in the best contact with our major health providers in South Dakota.”

Throughout the drastic responses that have swept across the country in effort to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak, Graves has pitched in himself.

As he is in the early chapters of Robert Lawson’s book “Ben and Me,” Graves has joined Mitchell educators and administration to provide more educational opportunities for local students through a live read aloud that can be found on the L.B. Williams Elementary School website. With several chapters left, Graves said he will finish the 114-page historical fiction book about Ben Franklin’s life over the time span of the school closure.

“We’re working to get through this together,” he said.

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