Despite the struggles of the pandemic, Perham students and educators continue to work hard and constantly improve.

“(The past year) is not a wasted year. We’ve had to do a lot of internal reflecting,” said Heart of the Lakes Elementary School Principal Liz Johnson. “When you’re in a school, you’re always trying to improve and grow. We’ve had to learn and grow and change.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many unforeseen changes in the Perham area, including its schools. According to Johnson and Prairie Wind Middle School Principal Scott Bjerke, spring 2020 was tough for students, but academics are improving again.

Johnson and Bjerke believe this is due to the return of in-person learning opportunities over the past school year. Bjerke said that, while less learning is still taking place than in the 2018-19 school year, that's changing.

"Students improve with more in-person classes," he said. "Having everybody back has been a huge positive, not only for academics but for mental health and engagement."

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Heart of the Lakes Principal Liz Johnson. (Courtesy photo)
Heart of the Lakes Principal Liz Johnson. (Courtesy photo)(Courtesy photo)

While the changes in academics have been hard for students the past year, especially because the lack of consistency said Johnson, those haven't been the only struggles for Perham students. Dee Boyce, an education with Express Learning Services, mentioned that the lack of social interactions have impacted students emotionally.

According to Bjerke, student-to-student relationships are incredibly important to middle-school-aged children. He believes that not having those face-to-face interactions has consistently been one of the biggest challenges for students in the pandemic.

"It's hard for them because they don't feel competent to do what they're doing," Boyce said. Bjerke and Johnson also mentioned the challenges to mental health the pandemic has brought students.

According to Bjerke, being back in person has also helped with this. He believes that, with the ability to see students face-to-face, it's easier to gauge their overall well-being, mental health, and engagement.

"You miss the nuances of what classes have (in distance learning)," said Johnson. "If you were to come into an elementary classroom, students learn how to negotiate social skills, and (teachers are) able to provide breaks and movement and varied instructions."

The Minnesota Safe Learning Survey, conducted by the University of Minnesota, found similar results witnessed by Johnson, Bjerke and Boyce after receiving 23,000 responses from educators, high school students and family members.

These findings included:

  • Students did learn during the first half of the school year, but not as much as in previous ones.
  • The pandemic's circumstances affected the mental health of students and teachers negatively.
  • Engaging students has been difficult.
  • Successes were made with the use of technology in distance learning.

While learning is easier when face-to-face for many students, that's not always possible during the pandemic. Perham educators made several changes to ensure the success of their students.

According to Boyce, visual aspects added to distance learning can help. "Older students are more adaptable," she said. "It's a little harder for little students to settle down."

For young middle school students at Prairie Winds, educators required students to check in using Google Classroom or Zoom. Students were also expected to log in at certain times throughout the day. Live interactions such as these helped teachers connect with their students, Bjerke believes.

Scott Bjerke, Prairie Wind Middle School principal
Scott Bjerke, Prairie Wind Middle School principal

Students with Heart of the Lakes Elementary were given grade-specific educators for distance learning. Johnson said that distance teachers also make sure to be very aware of what they're communicating to students and how.

"With distance learning, teachers had to do stuff in a very different way," Johnson said. "How do you reach people with the same intensity in a different way?"

Boyce and Express Learning Services stress the importance of identifying what may be contributing to any academic struggles for students. Boyce said it's best to address problems based on a student's individual abilities and not over-challenge them with something they can't handle. She believes it's best to focus on areas of strength rather than weaknesses because it enables success in weaker areas.

"Educators have done a fantastic job," Johnson said. "I can't say enough about what's happening in our building. Families too have been very supportive." She believes schools will take what they learned during the pandemic and continue use them in the future.