Surrounded by empty desks, a student logs on to a video call at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School. With only a few students spread across a huge classroom, social distancing was easy for work-study students. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Though students and teachers can’t be together in person, the dynamics of a middle school classroom at Jefferson Community School in Minneapolis feel very much alive.

The seventh and eighth graders, or “Blue Crew,” huddle into one online morning advisory meeting. Tucker Jensen, the science teacher, teases a student on his haircut. Students volunteer to lead the class in a group greeting that doubles as a lesson in finding the mute button. Instead of raising hands to get a teacher’s attention, students type in the chat sidebar. One student offers that he read books over the weekend. Another shares that her nose is bleeding. Teachers respond with all-caps praise and medical advice, as appropriate.

When schools shut down in March, students, teachers, and parents abruptly transitioned to distance learning. For many students, the educational experience of distance learning in the spring proved less than ideal. But as the coronavirus spread rampantly across the United States over the summer, distance learning returned to many schools this fall—with no end in sight. 

Still, on Tuesday, as they headed back to school from behind a computer screen, many Minneapolis students expressed optimism about the academic year to come. Their teachers say changes they’ve made to the instructional format and increased technology access will make distance learning more successful this year. 

Nina Nguyen, 13, an eighth grader at Jefferson, said she prefers the distance learning format.

“I like technology,” Nina said. “I think I like it more than the paper books. You don’t have to flip through things. It’s easier.”

Christopher Fernandez Ortiz, also 13 and in eighth grade, noted that distance learning appeared more structured than in the spring.

“Last time we just went to class any time,” he said. “Now we have a schedule.”

He misses seeing his friends, and being able to work on math problems with classmates. But he likes going to school online, too.

Holly Kleppe, Jefferson Community School’s principal, said the school had adjusted its fall plans based on parental feedback in the spring. When schools suddenly adjusted to distance learning, most of Jefferson’s instruction was asynchronous. That meant students didn’t have to log on at the same time, she said. 

But parents said they wanted more live instruction, and more opportunities for teachers to connect with students in small groups. Now the students have a clearer schedule: Every kid logs on at 9 a.m. every day. The schedule takes kids’ stamina into account, scheduling them for shorter chunks of online time. Opportunities for small group instruction occur every afternoon. 

And Kleppe expects to make more shifts in a few weeks, based on feedback. “We have to be really good listeners to figure out what we can do even better,” she said.

Kleppe’s biggest concern is the youngest learners, she said. Working remotely with kindergarteners can be challenging. “You want to reach your hand through the computer and show them different tools,” she said.

Back to school means back to work

Some of the only Minneapolis students in a school building on Tuesday were scattered across a spacious classroom at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, a Catholic school serving low-income students in south Minneapolis. There, eight high school seniors logged on to their corporate work-study placements. The work-study placements—students spend one day a week working an entry-level position for a local corporation instead of going to class—are a staple of the school and help pay for students’ tuition. But the program shut down during the stay-at-home order in March. Now it’s starting up again.

Cristo Rey, like Minneapolis Public Schools, has adopted a remote learning model to begin the year. The classrooms are mostly empty. But some work-study job sites have shifted employees to working from home. Students who would have gone to those job sites may now work their jobs from the Cristo Rey school building one day a week.

Marlenne Reyes, 17, is glad to be back in her work study placement. Even though it’s virtual now, it’s a welcoming environment, she said. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Marlenne Reyes, a 17-year-old senior, appreciates the change. “I was very excited to come back to the workspace because I really enjoyed my work placement,” she said. 

Marlenne hopes distance learning doesn’t adversely affect her senior year. Sometimes she can get distracted working from home, she said, and she’s worried that she might not understand everything in her advanced placement classes.

Still, she’s excited to make memories with friends this year. She’s not counting on prom, because she doesn’t know if it will be possible. But she and her friends can still have fun Rollerblading, she said.

The first step for some families: learning how to log on

A few miles down Lake Street, Mariam Adam, who teaches English as a second language at Anne Sullivan School, was thrilled to see her elementary students. “Today was a beautiful day,” she said. “It was so rewarding to see the kids smile, and that excitement just showing all over their face, welcoming schools into their homes.”

A trilingual educator—Mariam also speaks Somali and Arabic—she’s made many calls over the last six months to assist parents with everything from finding food for their families to obtaining internet connections. On Tuesday, she spent 45 minutes at the beginning of the school day to help one family log on. 

She sees the increased connection with parents and families as an advantage, and hopes that “family-driven instruction” will continue beyond the pandemic.

The students’ excitement to be back in school felt contagious, she said.

“A student of mine was so excited to see me that he almost forgot my name,” she said. “‘Ms. Adam, I’m so excited that I’m back in school.’ And he doesn’t usually speak much. He’s very quiet and reserved. But today he was just so excited he was able to describe his feelings with such in-depth adjectives”—a language skill Mariam watches for as an ESL teacher.

For some students, Tuesday marked their first day in a new school. Elizabeth Xiong started her freshman year virtually at Patrick Henry High School in north Minneapolis. This year Elizabeth is new to both the school and the district.

“Surprisingly, it was really smooth,” she said. “Everything was pretty on track and the teachers knew what they were doing.”

On the first day, her favorite class was history, she said. The teacher seemed easy going, and students in class proved talkative—not just in the chat function, but actually talking out loud. It helped Elizabeth feel confident to speak out loud, too.

Back in the middle school morning meeting at Jefferson, students and teachers have already encountered and conquered technical difficulties. They’ve mastered the mute button. And they’ve made each other laugh.

“Everyone is communicating so well this morning!” one teacher commented.

“I think we’re ready,” Jensen, the science teacher, agreed. “I think we’re ready for this.”

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.