St. Paul’s North High gears up for distance learning

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St. Paul Public Schools have had several weeks of canceled classes to prepare their distance learning programs, a largely electronic substitute in lieu of face-to-face class time, as part of the COVID-19 response plan. For North High School, part of that strategic process was equipping nearly 1,700 students with laptops in a short amount of time.

As teachers worked tirelessly on designing and adjusting their course materials, North High School support staff, paraprofessionals, and education assistants all pitched in to unbox and label computers and then get them synced up with the district system.

On the first day of pickup last week, more than 1,300 students showed up to obtain their computers. Staff checked student IDs outside in the parking lot and then radioed inside, where others would pull the computers and assign them to the students’ names.

Finally, someone would run the computer outside to the student.
“The first logistical piece for us was to get 1,700 students a laptop, and that was a giant task,” said North High Principal Greg Nelson. “Our media center looked like Santa’s warehouse for a while.”

Unlike some other schools that were already “one-to-one” in having a laptop for every student, North High had been in the middle of that process before the COVID-19 virus effectively closed it down.
“The goal was to get every single student equipped to do this no matter what transportation or WIFI issues they might have,” Nelson added. “Some students didn’t have WIFI at home, so we have hotspots that we checked out.”

Submitted photo Greg Nelson

After a second pickup day and van teams making hand deliveries, astonishingly all but three of the nearly 1,700 North High students were equipped with computers and supplemental learning materials such as AP textbooks. The district’s distance learning materials then went live on Schoology, their learning management system, on Monday, March 30.

Before 10:30 am that same morning, Schoology had crashed twice and gone back up just as quickly.

Despite the inevitable technological snags and tremendous logistical challenges of implementation, Nelson remains largely optimistic that distance learning can help fill the educational gap left in the wake of COVID-19.

“We’re really trying to look at this as an opportunity for everyone to better their teaching,” he said. “I think that both teachers and students are going to discover some things, and I really am pretty confident that there will be a decent experience for most.”

Nelson added that there have been significant grade accommodations made in light of this unusual school session so that students do not fall behind and GPAs are not heavily affected in the transition.

According to the St. Paul Public Schools website, most of the learning there will be “Asynchronous.” “Asynchronous Distance Learning is when a teacher and a student interact with learning activities in different places and at different times. Students enrolled in asynchronous distance learning courses are allowed to complete their work any time of the day that works best for a student and their family.”

At the laptop pickup, Nelson sensed that his students were really missing their social interactions. “They definitely miss each other. We’re a social institution that does a lot of norming for kids,” he said.
It may be quite some time before students are reunited. Although the projected return-to-school day is May 5, Nelson is unsure that the restrictions will be lifted by then.

“We’re just trying to be proactive and reactive at the same time as new pieces to the (COVID-19) equation emerge almost every day,” Nelson said. “Americans aren’t good at doing disciplined things or something where we don’t see the tangible result right now, so we’re just trying to fall in line.”