by ALEXANDRA RETTER
Josie Deiss’ daughter, who is in fifth grade at Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS), was so “over the moon ecstatic” about returning to school for full-time, in-person learning that she talked about it for days and discussed what to wear on the first day back with her friends over the phone.
“It’s really hard to have a child who is a social butterfly, and she’s all of a sudden told one day she can’t see her friends, go any place, have anyone over … So that social-emotional connection with friends and just being in a normal public setting is invaluable, and I think we take that for granted,” Deiss said.
Students at Winona Area Catholic Schools and Cotter Schools, as well as students in the Lewiston-Altura, St. Charles, Galesville-Ettrick-Trempealeau and Cochrane-Fountain City School Districts, are returning or have returned to in-person or hybrid learning, as well.
Deiss is excited for her daughter and her son, who is in second grade at WAPS, to regain the social connections that come with going to school everyday as WAPS and other local schools transition to in-person or hybrid learning. For some WAPS students, Monday marked the first day of learning in person on a full-time basis since last March. Kindergarteners, first graders and fifth graders have returned to the classroom for five days a week of in-person learning for the first time since the pandemic began.
“Just having them back and smiling and seeing their friends again is what I’m most excited for, because they’ve missed each other,” Jefferson Elementary School Kindergarten Teacher Stacy Rasmussen said.
Rasmussen plans on helping her students come together as a community in the beginning days of in-person learning on a full-time basis, she said, as half of her class has not met the other half, with the district having split students into two groups previously. Jefferson Elementary School First Grade Teacher Tammy Eastep agreed. “We talk about our classroom. It’s not my classroom; it’s our classroom. It’s family,” Eastep stated.
The structure of a school day will be valuable for students, Eastep said. “This will be good for them to know they’re coming to school, they’re safe, they’re loved,” Eastep stated. “They’re being fed. They can see their friends again in person instead of just on a screen.”
Teachers have already planned their lessons and developed their approaches to keeping their classrooms running amid the pandemic. Rasmussen aims to keep her students moving and learning with fun games and songs, all while making sure they stay far enough apart. They will learn about counting with cotton balls representing snow, for instance. Eastep’s students will have an opportunity to express their thoughts on the pandemic while gaining academic skills. They may respond to a writing prompt such as, “We need to wear our mask so ...” They will use hands-on learning tools during math lessons, as well.
One piece of teaching that will be easier in-person than it was in hybrid or distance learning, Rasmussen stated, is guiding students as they learn their ABCs, the sounds letters make and how letters’ sounds form words. “Doing that online was tricky,” Rasmussen said. The experience students gained with using technology during hybrid and distance learning will also be valuable, Eastep stated. “If we want kids on a math game … we won’t have to spend as much time going over how to do it, because they’ve done it before,” Eastep said.
Some typical parts of daily school will still be missing, however. It will be hard to not give students a hug or high five to greet them in the morning, Eastep said, but thumbs up will suffice for now.
In addition to regaining some social connections, Deiss is looking forward to her children interacting with their teachers and sharing ideas with their peers in person as they cover academic content. “It can be really hard to work with your child in the evening time on things that were happening during the day,” Deiss said about helping her children with schoolwork at night during hybrid and distance learning.
Erin Van Beek, who has a son in fifth grade and a daughter in second grade at WAPS, also said she is excited for her children to engage more with their teachers. “He has made comments that he learns so much better when he’s in school,” Van Beek said of her son. “And I think he really thrives on that, more of an all-day, teacher-led interaction.”
Her children are enthusiastic about seeing their friends again as well. “It was hard to be away from other kids, definitely … To be socially responsible, there’s a lot of times we didn’t see people, so they’re very thrilled to be back with their friends,” Van Beek said.
Chris Leblanc, whose son is in kindergarten at WAPS, said he is glad his son is learning among his friends and teacher. “We feel that’s the best way for him to learn, and other students to learn as well,” Leblanc stated.
WAPS plans for other grades to soon follow the kindergarteners, first graders and fifth graders who have already returned to in-person learning, with second through fourth grade scheduled to return to full-time in-person learning on January 27. Winona Area Learning Center students began hybrid learning on Monday. WAPS is planning for sixth through 12th grade students to start hybrid learning on January 28.
Per state guidance, the 14-day county case rate applies to district’s decisions about which learning models to implement at the middle and high school levels, but not the elementary level. Winona County’s most recent official 14-day case rate of 36.38, which comes from refined Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) data, puts the area slightly above the threshold for hybrid learning, which is a 14-day case rate below 30. However, the most recent unofficial 14-day case rate of 49.7, which comes from the cases that MDH reports daily, illustrates that more recent numbers are well over the threshold for distance learning.
Local school districts apart from WAPS are also putting in-person or hybrid learning in place. In the Lewiston-Altura School District, students in kindergarten through sixth grade returned to in-person learning, and students in seventh through 12th grade resumed hybrid learning, on January 6. The St. Charles School District implemented in-person learning for kindergarten through third grade and hybrid learning for fourth through sixth grade from January 6 through 8. The district now plans to have those models in place through January 15 before kindergarten through sixth grade begin in-person learning on January 18. The district also shifted seventh through 12th grade to hybrid learning on Tuesday.
Students at Winona Area Catholic Schools returned to in-person learning on January 6. Cotter Schools students in grades five through eight will start in-person learning four days a week on January 18. Students in ninth through 12th grade will return to hybrid learning on January 18.
In the Galesville-Ettrick-Trempealeau School District, students in kindergarten through eighth grade started in-person learning four days a week, and students in ninth through 12th grade began hybrid learning, on January 4. The Cochrane-Fountain City School District is implementing in-person learning for students in kindergarten through eighth grade and hybrid learning for students in ninth through 12th grade.
Keep reading the Winona Post for updates on local schools.