Mary Phipps worried the night before the new reality of her children’s distance-learning school day would be put to the test.

But in a few days’ time the Crystal mom of two boys, ages 8 and 13, said she was not nearly as overwhelmed. Her sons still were learning through the online platforms and she’d been in frequent communication with their teachers: “We’re all learning as we go, and I’m confident it’ll keep getting easier,” she said.

School officials across the metro area echoed similar messages last week as they thanked parents for demonstrating flexibility and patience. The transition has been a mostly smooth one, they say, crediting collaboration and communication, as well as two weeks of preparation time that Gov. Tim Walz afforded to develop distance-learning plans that outline expectations and resources.

The need to get it right for students became more apparent as the week progressed: Walz said chances are “relatively slim” that students will be returning to classrooms this school year.

Christine Tucci Osorio, superintendent of the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District, said she believed there’s the potential for education to be swiftly and permanently transformed.

“Educators are having to innovate in ways they never thought imaginable even just a few weeks ago,” she said. “The pace at which teachers are learning and applying new skills is remarkable.”

Thanks to previously scheduled spring breaks, two of the state’s largest districts — St. Paul and Minneapolis — won’t be putting their plans into action until Monday.

One of the biggest challenges for districts has been identifying and providing for students who didn’t already have home access to internet and laptops or tablets.

St. Paul had distributed 20,000 iPads as of March 24 and has the experience of putting devices in the hands of all students, thanks to a voter-approved levy. All schoolwork is to be assigned online, said Kate Wilcox-Harris, the district’s chief academic officer.

She added that attendance will be taken by way of morning prompts or activities, with follow-ups for those students with two absences.

After surveying families about their device and internet needs, Minneapolis also began handing out devices — first to high school seniors participating in its “spring break academy.” But the district also will give students the option to learn through paper packets to be delivered to their homes, district spokeswoman Julie Schultz Brown said.

Plans called for packets to be returned when schools reopened.

Inequities exposed

Other districts, including Anoka-Hennepin, Edina, Rose­ville and Rosemont-Apple Valley-Eagan, have been using a similar formula: working to distribute devices and set up internet for families who need it while ensuring paper options also are available.

“This is showing us the inequities that have existed in our communities,” said Joshua Collins, the director of communications for Roseville Area Schools. “The fact that so many of our students don’t have access to the internet has been a real challenge.” The district’s cultural liaisons have been conducting three-way calls, working as interpreters between families and internet providers, Collins said.

Anoka-Hennepin schools have deployed IT staff to be available to answer questions from teachers, parents and students. The department stayed busy on last Monday’s hectic first day addressing concerns about logging in and uploading work to learning platforms, many of which were slow or crashing because of high demand.

The Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district’s distance-learning plan, like many others, has outlined week-by-week goals. This first week’s focus: making connections with students and re-establishing routines.

Each teacher has office hours and students are expected to complete learning tasks, most of which are from concepts that were introduced before schools closed.

Superintendent Mary Kreger said the system seemed to be working, and both parents and teachers were adapting quickly.

“We are giving everybody some grace in the next few weeks, and we’ll find out what works well and what doesn’t,” she said. “It’s been a whirlwind. … These are not things they teach you in superintendent school.”

In South Washington County, officials created a distance-learning framework in three days. Then teachers went through training to prepare for the changes. A review of data for teachers in grades six through 12 showed the average teacher uploaded 117 activities for use with students, said Kelly Jansen, the district’s director of teaching and learning services.

State Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said educators have the persistence needed to take on new challenges, including the system crashes and slowdowns caused by a rush of students and teachers to online platforms nationwide.

“I am confident that educators across Minnesota are dedicated to assuring our students and families receive the highest quality education possible,” she said.

Finding what works

Denise Dzik, a first-grade teacher at Harambee Elementary School in Maplewood, said she was pleasantly surprised by how well the first few days of distance learning went for her class.

“The analogy here is that we are driving the bus as we build it and we are picking kids and families up along the way,” she said.

Her class has been offering a balance of online and written work to give kids the opportunity to choose between various activities. She has assisted through Zoom calls and FaceTime when needed. Dzik has worried about student readiness for second grade, but from what she’s seen and heard, she said, children are embracing the change.

School officials, teachers and parents all must find out what pieces of distance learning work. But there is one constant: “The spirit of learning is still there whether you’re in a building or an online distance-learning environment,” Edina Public Schools Superintendent John Schultz said. “You never have to worry about the kids wanting to learn.”

Phipps, the Crystal parent, has seen it firsthand with her sons.

“I actually think this is a really good thing and I do see it working,” she said. “But I also know my kids. If I wasn’t here, in their face, they probably wouldn’t be doing much schoolwork.”