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Students, teachers grapple with school closure extension

E-learning will continue for the rest of the academic year, according to an executive order by Gov. Walz.

ST PAUL, Minn. — Mark Westpfahl teaches history to sixth and seventh graders at Capitol Hill Magnet School in St. Paul.

Naturally, he decided to document the moment on Wednesday when he learned his building wouldn’t be opening again this academic year.

RELATED: Walz says schools will stay closed, some business can reopen

“Stopped by just to say hi to my building. I know it misses our students too,” he tweeted, sharing a photo of himself standing outside the school’s front entrance. “We’ll meet again, rest assured.”

The news out of the governor’s office on Wednesday – an executive order extending distance learning for the rest of the school year – came as no surprise to Westpfahl and his students. They’ve dealt with these less-than-ideal circumstances since March.

At the same time, the official decision to shut down physical learning inside school buildings came as a somewhat of a gut punch.  

“You know it’s coming,” Westpfahl said in a Zoom interview, “but you still can’t fully prepare for it and comprehend what it’s going to feel like.”

Teachers must now prepare for several more weeks of e-learning, which can be quite useful thanks to modern technology but can’t fully replace a classroom setting. Westpfahl is looking forward to a three-day period in early May – outlined specifically in the executive order – that will allow staff to plan for the remainder of the school year.

RELATED: Teachers prepare for 'distance learning' for rest of year

“I think it’s going to be extremely tricky to navigate the next several weeks, as we figure out – what should distance learning continue to look like?” Westpfahl said. “We’re going to see a lot of things that work in some instances for some teachers and some students and some families, but not for everybody.”

In a news conference on Thursday, Gov. Walz – a former teacher and coach himself – empathized with both teachers and students, particularly the Class of 2020 that will miss graduation ceremonies, proms and spring activities.  

He also noted that the circumstances of distance learning can have an adverse effect on some families, which is why his executive order directed schools to “support communities disproportionately impacted” by e-learning.

“It is certainly falling heavily on communities of color, indigenous communities,” Walz said. “It’s falling heavily on rural communities because of the lack of broadband.”

Teachers are doing their best to keep students engaged as they look ahead to the fall. State education officials haven’t made any decisions about next school year, and there are already valid concerns about a “second wave” of COVID-19 that could disrupt classes again.

But make no mistake: Many educators, students, and parents will rejoice when schools can return to traditional classroom settings.   

“It’s gonna be incredible when students are actually able to get back into a school and see each other,” Westpfahl said, “and just be kids with each other for a while.”

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The state of Minnesota has set up a hotline for general questions about coronavirus at 651-201-3920 or 1-800-657-3903, available 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

There is also a data portal online at mn.gov/covid19.

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