HOUSTON, Minn. -- When Gov. Tim Walz closed all schools in the state and students began learning at home in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Houston Public Schools boasted a singular advantage: It has its own online academy.

You might think that solved all of the district's distancing-learning challenges, but it didn't.

It has certainly helped, says Houston Superintendent Krin Abraham. The Minnesota Virtual Academy, an online school that serves 1,600 full-time students statewide, has been a boon not only to Houston teachers, but educators across the state in making the rapid-fire transition to distancing learning.

A sign reads “Distance Learning” on Friday, May 15, 2020, at the high school in Houston. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
A sign reads “Distance Learning” on Friday, May 15, 2020, at the high school in Houston. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

From teaching physical education and English as a second language online to conducting teacher evaluations, Minnesota Virtual Academy has been "incredibly helpful," Abraham said.

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But the online academy didn't spare Houston, a 450-student district, from all the challenges it has faced. Every school day since March 15, when Walz decided to close the schools, Abraham has held a morning staff meeting to troubleshoot and plan.

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The cafeteria sits unused on Friday, May 15, 2020, at the high school in Houston. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
The cafeteria sits unused on Friday, May 15, 2020, at the high school in Houston. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

From the outset, Houston, like other districts, was confronted with a digital divide as many of its students, mostly in rural Houston, lacked access to broadband.

"We have to understand that many of our students don't have broadband," Abraham said. "Distance learning has shined a light on some of the inequity we have around the state."

Acentek, a southeastern Minnesota Internet services company, rode to the rescue, providing free broadband to homes with school-age children. The donation benefited more than 50 Houston students as well as those in La Crescent and Caledonia, Abraham said.

Nor could Houston, despite its proximity to Minnesota Virtual Academy, escape a slew of challenges related to re-configuring a curriculum made for face-to-face learning into a tool for distance learning. Brick-and-mortar schools were given eight planning days to flip that switch. They were luckier than educators in other states, who had less time.

"There is no way to build a totally online curriculum in eight days," Abraham said.

Houston Public Schools Superintendent Krin Abraham poses for a portrait on Friday, May 15, 2020, at the school in Houston. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Houston Public Schools Superintendent Krin Abraham poses for a portrait on Friday, May 15, 2020, at the school in Houston. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

So Houston teachers have had to adapt -- and be creative.

A hands-on course like ceramics does not easily lend itself to online learning, but ceramics teacher Deb Sobeck has found a way.

Each week, a materials drop is conducted around the district. Clay and other items are assembled by staff at a loading area and left there for 24-hours, untouched, in accordance with CDC guidelines. The materials are then delivered by glove-wearing bus drivers to high school students' homes around the district.

Sobeck teaches the class via Zoom. The clay pots the students make are then returned to school and put in a kiln, again with gloved hands, "so students still get that same opportunity," Abraham said.

The ceramics studio sits unused on Friday, May 15, 2020, at the high school in Houston. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
The ceramics studio sits unused on Friday, May 15, 2020, at the high school in Houston. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

Teachers have told Abraham that if they wanted to teach online, they would have applied to Minnesota Virtual Academy. This is not what they signed up for. Abraham's reply: "Nobody signed up for COVID-19."

"I know my staff is tired, because I have watched an absolute herculean effort to make sure that every child is reached," Abraham said. "I know that I've got teachers and administrators who aren't sleeping. We are running a marathon at sprinter's pace."

An empty hallway on Friday, May 15, 2020, at the high school in Houston. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
An empty hallway on Friday, May 15, 2020, at the high school in Houston. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)