Ethan Ruskell, a junior at Chatfield High School, was the only student filling up any space in his environmental science classroom on Thursday. A smattering of empty tables stood between him and his teacher, Nora Gathje, the only other person in the room.

It wasn’t that Ruskell was the only student in the class. On the contrary, the faces of his classmates appeared on a screen at the front of the room as they logged in from their homes across town.

It was just another day of school in 2020, a year that has spawned many different configurations of what classrooms can look like.

As the number of cases of COVID-19 rise in the state, numerous school districts have pivoted their models to distance learning. Among others, they have included Rochester, Byron, Pine Island and Austin.

Regardless of whether a district has switched to a new model or not, students and staff are learning how to navigate the realities of the pandemic as best they can.

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“Students watch and listen to the adults in their lives,” Gathje said. “What we model for them in this very difficult situation is key to their resilience. My goal each day is to bring some normalcy to them and give them something meaningful and interesting to concentrate on for part of their day.”

Many school districts have implemented COVID-19 dashboards on their websites, letting families know how many cases of COVID-19 have been found in the district during any given week. Rochester Public Schools Superintendent Michael Muñoz spoke about the district’s handling of COVID-19 at a recent school board meeting.

As of Nov. 15, there have been 220 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among students and staff at RPS. More than 1,000 people in the district have had to quarantine as a result of being exposed to the virus.

Chatfield High School teacher Nora Gathje works with junior Ethan Ruskell as a Zoom screen is seen on standby for students working at home during an environmental science class on Thursday, November 19, 2020, at the high school in Chatfield. The students were split into two cohorts alphabetically to determine which days each were in-person learning or distant. Gathje said due to the Advanced Placement and elective nature of the course, the students are fairly independent. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Chatfield High School teacher Nora Gathje works with junior Ethan Ruskell as a Zoom screen is seen on standby for students working at home during an environmental science class on Thursday, November 19, 2020, at the high school in Chatfield. The students were split into two cohorts alphabetically to determine which days each were in-person learning or distant. Gathje said due to the Advanced Placement and elective nature of the course, the students are fairly independent. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

Pine Island was among the most recent schools to move all its students to distance learning. Pine Island High School Principal Mitch Schiltz said even though they are switching learning models, he’s glad students were in the classroom this fall so the teachers could build relationships with students.

Unlike other districts in southeast Minnesota, Chatfield is still operating in the hybrid model. The students allowed to go to school each day are split into groups alphabetically, so Ruskell doesn’t even get to see his friends when he's at the school. He’s started to question whether he wants to return to sports after the pandemic.

“I don’t mind the fact that we’re actually hybrid. Being at home doesn’t bother me all that much,” Ruskell said. “But I do think it’s really been a struggle for students’ mental health because it’s just definitely not normal."

Gathje asked her students to describe how they felt about the hybrid learning model. They responded with answers like “messy,” “uneasy,” “restless” and “stressful.”

For all those adjectives, Gathje knows there are hidden gems buried among it all. She knows it's helping her students become independent learners. She also knows her students are able to get a little more sleep.

As much as possible, she tries to help her students navigate it all.

“When students start to slide or are having difficulty completing assignments or staying motivated, I reach out one-on-one for a pep talk a lot more than I have in the past,” Gathje said. “We Zoom, use email, and meet in person.”

Like Gathje, Stewartville Public Schools teacher Jim Parry spends time making sure his students are staying focused and on track. In fact, that's a large part of his role as a teacher. This year, he has had to get creative in how he goes about it.

Chatfield High School teacher Nora Gathje works with junior Ethan Ruskell as a Zoom screen is seen on standby for students working at home during an environmental science class on Thursday, November 19, 2020, at the high school in Chatfield. The students were split into two cohorts alphabetically to determine which days each were in-person learning or distant. Gathje said due to the Advanced Placement and elective nature of the course, the students are fairly independent. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Chatfield High School teacher Nora Gathje works with junior Ethan Ruskell as a Zoom screen is seen on standby for students working at home during an environmental science class on Thursday, November 19, 2020, at the high school in Chatfield. The students were split into two cohorts alphabetically to determine which days each were in-person learning or distant. Gathje said due to the Advanced Placement and elective nature of the course, the students are fairly independent. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

As the REACH Program coordinator, Parry works with students dealing with things such as attendance or behavioral issues, mental health problems, and adverse childhood experiences. That's more challenging in a hybrid model.

“Human connection happens when you can see someone’s face and you can sense their emotion; I know when a student walks in the room if something happened that morning that’s got them upset," Parry said. “That’s really, really difficult to sense when they’re on a screen in front of you.”

He’s started new ways of connecting with his students. He and another educator in the Cambridge-Isanti School District began a podcast in May called “The Human Lighthouse Experience.”

He’s also been filming what he refers to as REACH reflection videos. He wants students to consider their emotional well-being; he wants them to consider what they’re thankful for, but he also uses the videos to encourage his students to get outside -- to try something new.

In recent videos, he’s filmed himself out metal detecting. He uses the videos to bring up broader lessons like using one’s talents to give back or trying to see a situation through someone else's perspective.

Chatfield High School teacher Nora Gathje walks her zoom students through classwork during an environmental science class on Thursday, November 19, 2020, at the high school in Chatfield.  (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Chatfield High School teacher Nora Gathje walks her zoom students through classwork during an environmental science class on Thursday, November 19, 2020, at the high school in Chatfield. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

Even if the pandemic were to end tomorrow, Parry knows he would continue making the videos.

“It’s kind of therapeutic for me to be able to talk through what’s important to me right now as well, knowing that if I project that out for others, that it gives them a chance to self reflect,” Parry said. "I'm very open and personal and maybe even vulnerable when I record those videos, so my students can see that I'm also a human being and that we all have struggles."

Chatfield High School teacher Nora Gathje greets her zoom students and in-person student Ethan Ruskell during an environmental science class on Thursday, November 19, 2020, at the high school in Chatfield. The students are split into two cohorts alphabetically, creating an uneven split of in-person and distance-learning students.  (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Chatfield High School teacher Nora Gathje greets her zoom students and in-person student Ethan Ruskell during an environmental science class on Thursday, November 19, 2020, at the high school in Chatfield. The students are split into two cohorts alphabetically, creating an uneven split of in-person and distance-learning students. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)