Tammy Fuerst has been separated from her second-grade students since the COVID-19 outbreak halted in-person school classes in Mitchell and around the state.
She’s done her best to engage her charges with virtual classroom time, the method currently being used by the Mitchell School District as an alternative to live classes. She meets with them daily online to guide them through their lessons, work on their social development and provide them with an anchor to a classroom that has moved from the Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary School building to their individual homes.
But she recently had a burst of inspiration on how she and those students can reconnect in the era of social distancing. She is combining problem and puzzle solving into a reward system that gives her students a chance to take a bike ride or a walk around the community with her.
She was inspired by Tressa Wede, a fifth-grade teacher at L.B. Williams Elementary School who developed a similar project. Wede would have her students calculate the distance between the student’s house and her house, and if the students completed the assigned tasks and calculations, she would run to their house and compare her time to a runner in the book Maniac Magee, a book the class had been reading together.
Fuerst, a looping first and second-grade teacher at Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary School, loved the idea, but needed a hook other than running she could use.
“I hate to run,” Fuerst, who has taught her entire 31-year career in Mitchell, said with a laugh. “But I love to ride bike. I ride every day, it’s one of my favorite things to do. And it hit me like that. Bike rides! I could do bike rides with my kids!”
Fuerst put together a mystery puzzle challenge that combines math lessons students would have to solve in order to receive alphabet letters that make up a phrase. When a student completes those tasks and solves the puzzle, they get to choose if they would like to go on a bike ride or a walk with their teacher.
She talked with Gertie Belle Rogers principal Chris Gubbrud and got the go-ahead to send out an email to parents explaining her proposal. The response was overwhelmingly positive, she said, and after a time she had her first mystery prize winner, who elected to take a bike ride with Fuerst.
She started with the intention of a quick cruise around the student’s neighborhood.
“In my head, as I saw it work out, I’m thinking maybe a half-hour, but I wasn’t setting any time limit. We just scheduled the start time of the ride,” Fuerst said. “With my first student, we rode bikes for two hours.”
Over the course of those two hours, teacher and student caught up on the talks they may otherwise have had if the COVID-19 outbreak hadn’t halted their regular classroom routine.
“He just talked and talked and talked,” Fuerst said. “We both were missing that time with each other. It was the best two hours ever.”
Since that first ride, Fuerst has ridden her bike or walked with six other students and she has five more rides scheduled in the near future. Most of the rides average around 90 minutes and the students talk about their schoolwork, things they miss about meeting as a group in the classroom and the sights and sounds they experience as they cruise around Mitchell.
She originally planned to stick to riding in the neighborhood where each student lived, but as the rides went longer than expected, she expanded that to include other parts of town.
“The kids were all really good riders, and we always make sure everyone has a helmet. I take one with me. And we’ve been riding around Hitchcock Park, around Mitchell Middle School, Cadwell Park and with some we’ve been on the bike trails around Dry Run Creek. It depends on where their house is and where we start,” Fuerst said. “We notice things as we go and talk about flowers and trees and landmarks.”
She likes riding on one-way streets because there is less traffic, and student and teacher ride with enough space between them to maintain good social distancing practices.
The response from parents whose kids are involved with the project has been highly-supportive, she said. She has talked with nearly all of the families of her 19 students and gained permission for the students to take part, and she’s ready to roll with any student who completes their tasks and has approval to take a spin with their teacher.
Jacqueline Johnson, whose 8-year-old son Owen is one of the students who has earned a ride with Fuerst, said the activity has been a welcome addition to the new school routine.
“It hasn���t been easy for our sons to learn from home. It’s required extra effort from them, and their teachers. Tammy Fuerst has done as good a job as an educator could. She’s gone the extra mile, literally,” Johnson said.
Gubbrud said the combination of classroom lessons with a bike ride as a reward was a good choice by Fuerst. It gets the kids to focus on an academic task with something that gets them outside the classroom, or in this case, their houses.
“It’s a neat way to get out there and see her kids,” Gubbrud said.
Fuerst is putting on the miles as she pedals the community with her students. The first ride of the project totalled about 18 miles, Fuerst said. Another ride earlier this week logged 12 miles. It’s an activity that she enjoys on multiple levels, and as a longtime cycling aficionado, it allows her to engage in two activities she loves — cycling and spending time with her students.
As someone who has ridden the 110 miles of the George S. Mickelson Trail in the Black Hills, a couple of tours around Mitchell with her students per day is an easy, rewarding way for her and her students to bridge the gap caused by COVID-19.
And it’s a tradition she intends to keep as she eyes next school year, when classes and school routine will hopefully be back to normal.
“I love to ride, they love to ride, so I will definitely be doing it again. Hopefully we’re back to the normal school (routine), but even if it’s not it’s going to be something I’m going to do. It’s perfect for us,” Fuerst said. “I’m planning to do it, no matter what happens. It has been the best thing I’ve done in 31 years.”