Area Schools Deploy Distance-learning, Free Meal Programs to Reach Students

UPDATE: In a press conference on Tuesday, March 24, Governor Noem announced that the schools in the state will remain closed through at least May 1. 
 
Area Schools Deploy Distance-learning,
Free Meal Programs to Reach Students
 
   In an attempt to suppress the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, Governor Kristi Noem announced on Tuesday, March 17, that all the public schools in the state would remain closed for a second week. The announcement was the catalyst for discussions among school administration members and school board members to provide alternative learning opportunities for the students of area districts. 
    The Big Stone School District had already been piloting a Blizzard Bag program this year in anticipation of another winter like last, according to Christopher Folk, the CEO of the school. “The goal was to keep providing educational opportunities for our students even through school closures.”
    While the winter was mild, the Blizzard Bags came in quite handy when the governor announced that schools would be closed. “These educational packets of school work hit on all the educational standards that each grade is focusing on. The first week of school closure (March 16 to 20), the students of the Big Stone City School already had these packets to work on,” Folk explained. 
    While Big Stone City School’s 89 students worked on the initial Blizzard Bag assignments, their teachers have been working on putting together another week’s worth of materials for the students to work on. School officials arranged for the drop-off of the completed assignments and pickup of updated Blizzard Bags on Monday. Families in the district were assigned three different time blocks according to the students’ last name. “For now, we will stay with this plan, and if other information is given that requires the school to be closed for a longer period of time, we will continue to provide educational opportunities to our students,” Folk said. 
    Folk added that the returned school work from students will be kept in a box for up to 36 hours before removing it so it can be graded. The wait time is recommended by the Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control. He reported that other schools are handling returned school work similarly, some using a 24-hour wait period. 
    Like most school districts in the area, Big Stone City School has implemented a program to provide free meals to any children who are 18 years of age and younger during the school closures. The Big Stone City meal program runs Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Each food package will have two breakfasts and two lunches. District families are asked to contact the school at 605-862-8108 ext 120 before 9 a.m. every morning, and meal bags will be prepared accordingly. 
    “One of the big challenges we are facing is the equity of delivery. According to our Title survey this fall, 18 percent of our students don’t have internet access at home. Our teachers are working on ways to make sure all of our students have access to quality learning opportunities,” commented Mike Schmidt, superintendent of the Summit School District. 
    The Summit teachers are working on some flex learning options, while others have sent learning packets home with students, and we have some that are using online platforms like Google Classroom. “The use of e-learning in relation to packets varies,” Schmidt said. “Much has to do with comfort. For instance, Google Classroom is a learning management system that several of our teachers have used, and their students have used, so the level of comfort of both the teacher and student would aid in the learning process.” 
    There are many options for the online learning portion. Most of the systems are a one-way delivery, such as teacher creating a video, presentations, weblinks and documents on Google Classroom. There are also options available that would allow for real-time class discussion, but school officials and teachers are not as familiar with those, according to Schmidt. 
    Summit’s teachers who elected to use packets started distributing them on Monday, March 23, by having the packets available for pickup at the school. We may deliver or mail packets to students who cannot get to the school. We may also deliver packets electronically (email, text). 
    “This will be a work in progress if the school needs to be shut down for a longer period of time, and we will find the most efficient way to deliver. We are working through this to find the best methods of allowing our students access to learning materials,” Schmidt said. 
    “All across the state, teachers have been collaborating through the state email system on different methods they are using to reach students. Many companies are offering services to deliver education for free. It is pretty awesome to see how people are helping each other in this time of need,” Schmidt said. 
    Like many school districts, Summit started a meal program for youth during the school closures. The district offers breakfast for the next day and lunch available for students to take home from the school between 11 a.m. and noon. If anyone needs a lunch delivered, they need to contact Schmidt at the school or email mike.schmidt@k12.sd.us.
     “Another challenge to our teachers is the uncertainty of the current situation. We don’t know when we will be back in session,” Schmidt summarized. “We are dealing with the closures hour by hour.”
    “The Milbank School District is about to sail in uncharted waters,” commented Justin Downes, superintendent, in reference to the rollout of distance education during COVID-19 school closures. 
    In the past, the South Dakota Department of Education has not given any credit to hours used during closures like snowstorms, water main breaks, and now, pandemics, according to Downes. As a result, many school districts have not invested much time into designing platforms, delivery methods and other related facets.
    “Our staff is working feverishly to figure out how to best feed and educate our students for the fourth quarter, while still keeping them safe,” Downes explained. Officials in the Milbank district will be rolling out its earliest version of distance education this week. Delivery methods will include online resources, packets, textbooks and everything in between. “We are working to find out which of our families have access to things like the internet and devices,” Downes said. 
    Milbank staff will be getting information out to families via the messenger service, the school app, website and Facebook pages, along with traditional media. “We will try to update information as quickly as we can. There will be info going out on how to access as well as pick up materials,” Downes said.
     “The one thing everyone needs to remember is to be patient. We have a rock star staff that is working very hard to make sure we give the best education that we can during these difficult times,” Downes said. Because the situation is continually changing, he anticipates that there will also be many changes in the leadership relative to the schools’ expectations. 
    The free meal service provided through the Milbank School District will continue through the period that the school is closed. 
    St. Lawrence staff met on Monday, March 23, to roll out a plan for e-learning or distance learning for any future weeks that we will be out of school.  “Our goal is to prepare for what could occur, with the hope that we will all be back at school soon,” commented Brenda Anderson, principal.
    “The school will communicate the distance learning expectations to the parents so that our students can make a smooth transition to this unprecedented style of learning,” Anderson explained.  The St. Lawrence School teachers have started the communication process with parents to determine which students will need devices to be sent home and which students are without internet service.  The first day scheduled for the pickup for materials will be Wednesday, March 25, from 7:45 a.m. to 3:05 p.m.  School staff are asking parents to follow the pickup line that is used for normal dismissal, and staff will bring materials out to the parents.  
    Larry Hulscher, superintendent of the Wilmot School District, reported that the Wilmot students started the process of distance learning last week. “Some students will be doing this through packets sent out from the school and others with capabilities will be doing it over the internet,” Hulscher said.  
    “Our parents, students and staff are doing something really remarkable, changing the way education has been done for years in about a week’s time,” Hulscher said. “This will be very stressful at times for all involved, but I am grateful for all the people who I have working on this process, because I believe they are putting forth their best effort to make sure this will help our students along their educational journey.”
    Similar to the other school districts’ responses, the Wilmot school has started sending out sack lunches and breakfasts to anyone under 18 years of age.  “Last Thursday was our first day, and we moved about 150 lunches, Hulscher reported. “We hope to make these deliveries on Mondays and Thursdays, with each packet having about three days of meals,” he said. The locations for the meal pickup are the Wilmot School, Browns Valley Cenex C-Store and Corona Community Center from 10:30 to 11 a.m.
    As a result of the fluidity of the new information becoming available daily, the administration team of all local schools asks that patrons stay tuned to their school district’s website and social media outlets. 
    The administrators expressed appreciation for the patience exhibited by the families and for the dedication of their respective staff members as each district moves forward with its distance learning options. 
~Holli Seehafer

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BULLHEAD LAKE located east of Wilmot and north of Highway 15 was the site of a tragic drowning accident in October of 1907 when two young men lost their lives while on a duck hunting excursion.

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