MITCHELL, S.D. — It's been 10 weeks since South Dakota teachers last saw their students without the use of a computer screen, and with the school year now coming to a close and fall plans uncertain due to COVID-19, it will be several more months at least before they'll again teach face to face.

When Gov. Kristi Noem first closed South Dakota's schools in mid-March and those closures were eventually stretched through the end of the school year, districts across the state quickly cobbled together distance learning plans from various combinations of familiar and new online programs, pencil-and-paper handoffs of classwork and, for some, existing plans already developed in case of school closures longer than a snow day or two.

During a school year book-ended by record-setting flooding and a global pandemic, Corsica-Stickney Superintendent Scott Muckey said faculty in his district and others in southeast South Dakota had potential remote learning strategies in mind before schools closed through the end of the year.

"We’ve got to deal with some of this stuff that’s really unusual, like that flood, where you’re out of school for something that you just don’t anticipate happening," Muckey said Wednesday. "How can we do some e-learning? How can we do some flex learning? We had talked about that and kind of had started to kick those ideas around."

South Dakota law stipulates that while educational standards are set at the state level, how those standards are met is determined district by district, with each determining how much latitude they want to give each school or individual teacher in terms of lesson planning. That's resulted in educational approaches as varied during the COVID-19 pandemic as they would be in a traditional classroom environment.

In the more than two months since schools first closed, the state Department of Education has held virtual meetings with superintendents weekly and has released a number of documents on recommendations for how to adjust grading, curriculum delivery and other logistics.

In June, the Department of Education will require all accredited schools to submit a form detailing how they implemented flex learning while schools were closed, as determining what programs to use and how to get information and materials to students was ultimately left up to each school district.

“We all got thrown into this very quickly, and we kind of navigated it together," Chamberlain School District Superintendent Debra Johnson said.

Making a connection

In the Chamberlain School District, geography has presented educators with an added challenge as they've worked to reformat their curriculum for distance learning. With 875 students spread out over 925 square miles, Johnson said some creativity has been needed to ensure all students are being reached.

The district's buses have been used both to deliver breakfast and lunch to students on days they would otherwise be in a school building and to distribute and pick up paper homework packets for those who have assignments and aren't online.

When schools first closed, Johnson said each student was contacted by a staff member, with the school enlisting the help of its social worker and law enforcement to perform wellness checks if needed. About 2% of the district's students were unable to be contacted at that time, and communication has dropped off with others since, she said.

Superintendent Joe Graves said because students in the Mitchell School District had the option to do assignments on paper, because Mitchell is a one-to-one school district — each student is given a laptop for school work — and because the district worked with internet providers to ensure students all had internet access, the small minority of students who failed to complete assignments did so by choice.

“Some students really did fail to engage. That was really unfortunate," Graves said. "We provided either the virtual format or the paper and pencil format. The teachers tried to engage with the students, but if the students wouldn’t engage then it kind of fell to parents, and if the parents didn’t engage, then it pretty much didn’t occur."

Some internet providers have offered COVID-19-related options to students. Midco, for example, has offered a basic internet package to new customers for $14.95 per month and free to low-income students and households that didn't have internet access. Paige Pearson Meyer, Midco's director of community and media relations, said this week a total of 2,469 households across four states are using the basic package for distance learning.

School districts, meanwhile, have been looking for additional ways to make internet access more attainable for students.

Muckey said students can log into the district's network by parking outside the school building in Corsica, and the district has also offered USB drives containing documents to students as an alternative to going online or paper copies. Johnson has looked into working with internet providers or setting up wifi hot spots on the district's buses, but those possibilities are still at the brainstorming stage.

Throughout the past few months, the issue Johnson's heard more frequently than students not having internet access is that households with multiple students in middle school or elementary school often have fewer computers than children.

While the Chamberlain School District has the equivalent of one laptop or tablet for each student, only high school students are able to take those devices home. The iPads and Chromebooks used by middle schoolers and elementary schoolers have stayed in the classrooms unused this spring because the district currently only has charging carts for those devices, rather than individual chargers.

In hopes of younger students being allowed to take school-owned devices home in the future, Johnson said the district is applying for federal Title I funding to purchase chargers and other necessary hardware, which she estimates would cost between $25,000 and $30,000, as well as to continue training staff on the technology.

"People may have one computer at home, but if you have three children that are middle school and elementary level, then they only have one computer to share, and that’s why we want to be able to ease that stress," Johnson said.

Refining tools for the future

Johnson said while she's happy with her staff's ability to put flex learning tools in place quickly, the next step is to narrow down the number of platforms in part to keep parents from having to learn to navigate a number of different online tools, such as a combination of Zoom, Google Classroom, Schoology, Seesaw and others, and to help multiple children complete assignments and access content.

Graves said the past few months have been a chance to test drive some tools teachers might be able to utilize even after students return. Information on how different online tools were used and how students engaged will be compiled into a report for Mitchell teachers.

While programs such as Zoom have allowed students to see their teachers face to face, even if through a screen, administrators said they are no substitute for a traditional classroom setting.

“When people go into education, they go into education because they’re people people. They like engaging with people," Graves said. "… All of the sudden, we moved into this virtual environment. I think that was tough for a lot of people: teachers, administrators, parents. It’s a different format. It’s not why people went into it. I think that was maybe the biggest struggle beyond simply how to offer the instruction.”