Teachers at Wrenshall School recently sent a letter to school officials voicing their concerns that middle and high school full-time distance learners are not receiving an equitable education to those in the classroom.
The letter was sent by the Education Minnesota Wrenshall unit and was read aloud at the committee of the whole meeting Wednesday, March 10, by Wrenshall teacher Sheri Fossen.
"We understand that these are not normal times, and that sacrifices must be made in times of crisis," the letter read. "What we do not understand, and find unacceptable, is that these sacrifices are being heaped onto the backs of our remote students and causing their educational experiences to suffer."
Staff had previously brought their concerns to the superintendent and three members of the school board, asking them to implement a full distance learning day on Wednesdays for all students, in replacement of the half day they currently have on Mondays.
In the end, Superintendent Kimberly Belcastro said the school board felt strongly that they and the community want to have students in the building five days a week.
District officials said they have granted more than the legal amount of preparation time required by an executive order by Gov. Tim Walz ordering an extra 30 minutes of prep time per school day for teachers.
Belcastro told the Pine Journal they allow for all of the prep time to be completed in one time block through the early release on Mondays, which ends classroom instruction at 12:20 p.m.
When the decision was made to not change the schedule, some staff said they felt they needed to voice their objections through the letter.
Teachers also spoke at Wednesday's meeting, sharing their experiences with teaching distance learners.
“It is very difficult," Wrenshall teacher Pamela Niesen said.
Niesen is in her first week of attempting to teach classroom and distance learners concurrently in an effort to engage those at home. She shared there's been many challenges with technology and it's been difficult for everyone to be allowed equal participation.
In addition to other challenges, Niesen said she doesn't have enough books for all of the students, and has begun uploading pages for online viewing.
The Wrenshall district allows for immediate textbook ordering if teachers are short on materials, and has been working to get more books, Belcastro told the Pine Journal later in the week.
“It really just doesn't work," social studies teacher Denise North said in regard to teaching concurrently.
She explained that there isn't adequate technology available to all students, a sentiment that was echoed by English teacher Ted Conover.
Conover has spent time researching the technology needed to make concurrent instruction possible, and said what the school has right now does not meet the requirements.
He said better quality webcams and microphones are necessary to allow distance learners to see and hear the lessons taught in the classroom.
According to Belcastro, the district has allotted significant funds this school year toward new technology, such as Chromebooks, hot spots, headsets and voice amplifiers, but staff said that other obstacles remain.
“We’re trying every strategy that we possibly can," Wrenshall teacher Nichole Rowland said. “It’s still not enough.”
Rowland expressed that the main concern is for distance learners in grades 7-12.
There are currently 31 students in the high school and middle school opting for full time distance learning, with 22 in the elementary school.
According to Belcastro, the district has been able to designate specific teachers for elementary distance learners, but not for the middle or high school.
In turn, this has caused teachers to be stretched thin with their time and many distance learners do not have as much access to instructors as the learners in the classrooms.
“It’s been a lot on everybody in so many ways," Belcastro said.
According to Belcastro, district officials worked with teachers to try and accommodate their needs around distance learning.
She said they allowed teachers who wished not to return to the school building the ability to "opt out" of in-person instruction, and provide distance instruction to their students from the safety of their homes.
Those who did return to the building said they are finding ways to optimize their time. Math teacher Nick Moran said he uses study hall and prep time to help distance learners, while North said she tries to meet with her distance learners every day at 3 p.m. after her regular classes are finished.
Due to the extra work required by staff, a letter signed by the Education Minnesota Wrenshall president and Wrenshall School Board chair allows teachers to apply for additional compensation if they are required to provide both in person and distance instruction.
"I think it would be an understatement to suggest that the teachers are not being supported or listened to in these difficult times," Belcastro said in an email to the Pine Journal. "I also want to recognize that staff members in the district have been working above and beyond the district’s expectations."
Rowland ended the conversation at the meeting by reiterating the unfairness of the situation for students remaining at home out of concerns for safety in the pandemic.
This story was updated at 12:40 p.m. March 15 to include additional information and comments from Wrenshall district officials. It was originally posted at 7 a.m. March 12.