28,000-plus clicks & counting: BV students continue lessons via distance learning

Jamie Hult, Staff writer

BV sixth-grader Phin Lawrence and his sister, Paizley, a third grader, tackle schoolwork at the kitchen table last week during the coronavirus-inspired mandatory school closure, which is currently through May 1. Photo courtesy of Amy Lawrence 


As of last Friday morning, the Brandon Valley School District’s distance learning plan website had been accessed more than 28,000 times.

That’s a lot of clicks over the last two weeks.

On Monday, the school district began their third week of remote learning following the government-mandated school closure, which is now expected to last through early May in  the attempt to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Homeschooling has been an adjustment for everyone in the public school system as educators look for new ways to teach concepts virtually and parents scrounge up every ounce of patience and time to oversee their child’s studies, in some cases while also working from home. 

“I have learned a ton over a two-week period. I feel like my brain’s always on the go,” said Brandon Valley High School principal Mark Schlekeway. “We’re learning new stuff every day.”

When the district launched its e-learning initiative on day one of the government-mandated school closure, the district expected the closure to only last a week. Since then, South Dakota has announced public schools are closed through May 1. 

“We came out really aggressive,” Schlekeway admitted. “We wanted to make sure they were all academic days. We’ve backed off … and I think that has been helpful for our students.”

“It’s definitely not busy work,” agreed Amy Lawrence, who has a third-grader, a sixth-grader and a ninth-grader in the school district. “They’re definitely still schooling them.”

Adjusting to temporary homeschooling has been easier for Lawrence than for others. She already works from home, and she has a support group of fellow parents and families who are taking turns picking up the district-provided free school breakfasts and lunches every day.

“The biggest thing is I needed to dedicate the time to them and not multitask,” she said.

You might say it’s a good time to be a Lynx.

“There are parents in other districts that don’t have the support like we do in BV and are having to find their own resources to keep their kiddos on track,” noted Ellie Saxer, parent to Braxton, a fourth-grader at Brandon Elementary. “As a parent, I have a deeper appreciation for all that teachers, staff and administrators do and invest in students.”

Teachers are collaborating in new ways, like hosting their own video conferences with each other to swap strategies, and they’ve asked parents and students for feedback. 

And the remote learning system is always evolving as the teachers look for ways to streamline the process.

“Sometimes the internet’s working, and sometimes it’s not,” said high school history teacher Jeremy Risty. “It’s still trial and error.”

For Risty’s students, adjusting to a digital platform was “fairly minimal,” he said, since much of the schoolwork already incorporated technology. His classes, and many others throughout the district, already use learning platforms like Google Classroom and Schoology in daily teaching. 

But it’s not quite the same. During the quarantine, Risty has been holding around four meetings a day with students through a video conference platform called Zoom. 

“I love that, because it allows me to still communicate with my students in a relatively face-to-face manner,” Risty said. “As a teacher, you go into teaching for the students, and when you don’t have that contact with them every day, it’s really hard.”

“I honestly believe the biggest challenge is not being able to see the students, and missing the interactions we have each day with our parents and students,” agreed Kim Skibsted, STEM/technology integrationist.

Another roadblock that teachers are hitting is that some students need a lot of structure, but the teachers are limited as to how much they can provide.

Maggie Bryant uses an app called Remind with her high school English students. Scheduling students can be a challenge, she said, so she’s also hosting open office hours where students can reach out remotely with questions for her or each other.

“I think a lot of our kids have been really missing that personal interaction, so that has been helping out,” Bryant said. “They can come on and off as they please. I have a couple of students who hop on almost every day to see each other and ask questions about the assignment, and some I’ve only seen once, and some I’ve not seen at all.”

Special education is one area of learning that doesn’t translate easily to a remote platform. 

“It’s hard not being able to help that kid like you would at school, physically seeing them and sitting by them,” said SPED teacher Maggie Youngberg. “It’s just an adjustment for everybody, but I think we’re doing a really good job.”

The school district began closely following news of the COVID-19 spread in late February. Administrators worked with key employees like curriculum director Sherri Nelson to have a plan in place by the time Gov. Kristi Noem announced in mid-March that all public schools would close for an indefinite period of time.

“As a team, we had a clear vision of what our distance learning plan would be at each respective level and took immediate action to make the vision a reality,” said superintendent Dr. Jarod Larson.

In addition to being a BV parent, Saxer also serves on the school board. 

“Overall, we are incredibly blessed by the BV School District as they prepared kids to function in this situation and have been relentless, innovative, and collaborative in supporting students and parents every step of the way,” she said. “Don’t get me wrong, though; we are all excited to get back to school. I’m hopeful to be able to hand out diplomas at graduation to our BV seniors.” 



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