Two students holding up Extended Flexible Learning Signs in English and Spanish and smiling

As Minnesota reported its first case of COVID-19 on March 6, we were headed into spring break. Since then, we’ve learned a lot about resilience, flexibility, creativity and the extraordinary things we can accomplish as Spring Lake Park Schools. As we look ahead to finishing the year in extended flexible learning, we will embrace this as an opportunity with optimism and confidence despite the sadness of not being together.

As the school board met for a regular board meeting April 14, there wasn’t a lot that felt “regular” about it. While the meeting included all the components of a board meeting, board members participated through screens and phones from the safety of their homes and the primary topic was a report on the school district’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The last meeting was in March, just before Minnesota reported its first case of COVID-19. In that short month, the school district launched child care for health care workers and first responders, established meal delivery services for community children and totally rebuilt how we do school. There was a lot to report.

“I am immensely proud of the way in which our Spring Lake Park Schools community has risen to this challenge,” says Jeff Ronneberg, superintendent. “As I’ve been in touch with other districts, I’ve learned just how special our response to this situation has been. This is not just about ‘getting through’ this situation but on building an even stronger future for our schools.”

Feeding and caring for children

Weekend Food Pack bags

Schools across the state closed the week of March 16 to prepare for the potential of extended school building closures. Spring Lake Parks Schools pivoted that week to launch child care and meal delivery.

Child care for essential workers began March 18. Thirty days later, 91 children — an average of 26 children per day — and 57 families had been served. These services continue for children whose parents are Tier 1 and 2 employees as specified by the state of Minnesota and serving essential needs for our community.

Free meals for children began the same week and will continue while school buildings are closed. During the first month, through 10 sites across the district, 32,353 meals were distributed. More than 30 nutrition services staff assemble meals, and an additional 30 staff members, including many paraprofessionals representing each of our schools, deliver the meals into our community.

The Panther Foundation has augmented the district’s efforts and supplies Weekend Food Packs to families. A month in, more than 2,595 Weekend Food Packs had been distributed. In addition, the Foundation’s Angel Fund is supporting grocery gift cards and other basic needs for families.

A different approach to planning

As child care and meal delivery launched, planning also got underway for the likelihood of continuing learning in a distance format. Many school districts brought all staff in at one time for planning. Spring Lake Park Schools took a different, tiered approach.

A teacher setting up a stuent iPad for extended flexible learning

“It was imperative to us that teachers be very supported in developing learning experiences in this new environment so students could continue their learning as effectively as possible,” says Jeff. “We wanted our process to help manage stress and anxiety not create more.”

In that spirit, district leaders were first on-site to develop response team protocols. Then, the Education Services team gathered to develop the district’s shared framework for extended flexible learning. Principals and academic coaches then provided real-time feedback before teachers engaged in professional learning and individual and collaborative planning.

As one school staff member said, “This tiered approach created direction and allowed each tier to deal with their own stress and anxiety before leading the next tier. Each group had time to work through their struggles, come to terms with a new reality, and devise a plan going forward.”

The work included using the district’s established 3D design process to put staff and students and families at the center of the design. Templates, toolkits, technology tutorials, and digital resource libraries were created to support the experience of staff, students and parents and families.

What students’ experience

The district’s framework for extended flexible learning outlines expectations for what this experience should include. While delivery of the different components depends on the teacher, the Spring Lake Park Schools experience includes five common elements:

A student holding up an iPad showing where he is interacting with his teacher
  1. A daily greeting that communicates work expectations and maintains and builds relationships. These are often videos so students can see and hear their teachers to maintain connections and relationships.
  2. Synchronous (“live”) learning sessions once a week (at minimum). These might be focused lessons for reading with teacher modeling, small group meetings to do checks on student learning and progress, a mini-lecture with time for questions, collaborative small group discussions with peers, and more. These are also all recorded for later viewing.
  3. Asynchronous (“not live”) opportunities for student-to-student interaction. This might be discussion board posts and replies, the use of Flipgrid for video responses and replies, providing peer-to-peer feedback on work, and collaborative projects.
  4. Consistent and meaningful feedback on student work that moves their learning forward. This allows teachers to monitor and adjust instruction for individual students, small groups of students, or for the whole class as they go.
  5. Consistent opportunities for students and families to connect with teachers on questions … often described as “office hours.” These may be open WebEx sessions where kids can “drop-in” for help or connections, or scheduled times to provide direct support and scaffolding for student learning.

Special education services also are continuing for all students with disabilities during this time. There’s a focus on regular and positive communication with students and families, and case managers are assisting in creating or providing accommodations for students who need them.

“We also know mental health issues haven’t subsided because of COVID-19,” says Tony Mayer, director of student services. “Structures are in place to continue to provide targeted mental health supports for students in this unique environment.”

Near-term next steps – continuous improvement

After a month of extended flexible learning, many early hiccups — most related to performance issues with the learning technology platforms — have been alleviated.

“The positive feedback from parents and families is far outweighing any concerns,” says Jeff. “Yet, we know not everyone is experiencing the great levels of success. Thus, we are focused in the near-term on continuing to improve the experience of extended flexible learning for students and families as we also continue to support our staff in successfully navigating this new way of teaching as the situation in our community continues to evolve.”

With the announcement that schools will remain closed in Minnesota for the rest of the 2019-2020 school year, we are focused on assessing a variety of spring events. 

“We don’t take any of this lightly. For high school seniors, in particular, this is a tough spring. This is not how they – or their parents – imagined their senior year to end,” says Jeff. “We want to do anything we can to try and preserve the senior year experience. We decided to postpone prom and graduation to later this summer. Our plans will continue to be subject to changing conditions, and we are hopeful we can hold these events in some capacity.”

Prom is now rescheduled to Friday, June 26, and graduation is now rescheduled to Saturday, Aug. 1. Other school events will be assessed to determine if they will be postponed, done differently or  canceled.

“In the first month of this experience, we’ve learned that whatever the coming weeks hold, we, as the SLP learning community, are up for whatever comes our way and that is something very special,” says Jeff.