'Why is this so hard?' A glimpse into a year of virtual high school in MN

A person makes alterations to a dress.
Twelfth grade student Sophia Rao works on a costume for her Senior Capstone project at her home in St. Peter, Minn. on March 1.
Courtesy of Sophia Rao

One of the things Sophia Rao likes about distance learning is that she gets to fill her breaks between classes working on her costumes — part of her senior year capstone art project. 

“I never thought I’d live through a pandemic,” Rao said, “I expected to hate distance learning, but I like it. I get more time to work on costumes and chat with my family.” 

Rao, 17, is a senior at the Performing Arts Institute of Minnesota, or PIM — a charter with about 300 students in Eden Prairie. But Rao has barely been to the Eden Prairie building this year. She usually logs on to her classes from either her bedroom or her stepdad’s office at her home in St. Peter. 

Not going to class in person can be hard. Rao usually turns her camera on and speaks up in discussions, but she said not many of her peers do the same. There are some students whose faces she’s never seen and whose voices she’s never heard. The lack of engagement, the confinement to the house is more than isolating. It makes her and her fellow students feel lost sometimes: they struggle to focus and get their work done. 

“I think the important thing to highlight is just what an impact this is having on everyone’s mental health. I’ve had many of my fellow peers say things to me like, ‘Wow, Sohpia, I don’t know why I’m struggling with this depression, I don’t know why I’m struggling with this,” Rao said. ”I mean, there’s nothing really that big going on in my life, so why am I so sad?” 

But Rao has turned her struggles and those of her fellow students into an opportunity to connect. She started a peer tutoring group early in the year, to connect students with each other and offer academic help. 

“It’s mostly academics, although we occasionally have people who need help with the arts. A lot of math, because, you know, everyone struggles with math, I think,” Rao said. “The reason I started the program is because I had so much difficulty last spring with maintaining positive mental health while simultaneously trying to stay on top of school. I think a lot of students are still struggling with that.” 

Rachel Brady, a theater teacher at PIM, encourages students to turn on their cameras but doesn’t require it. A lot of student interaction happens in Zoom chats instead. 

“I’ve started to embrace the chat,” Brady said. “Usually in my chat you see a bunch of messages come in and students are chatting with each other and I let that happen because it’s the only time really they’re getting to connect with each other.” 

Brady misses spending the day barefoot in a studio with a group of high schoolers — creating a communal, collaborative theater experience. But this year she’s focused more on filming and digital skills. She tries to give out meatier assignments that allow students to express themselves through their work, like puppetry and acting toward the camera. 

“What I continue to just be astounded by and stunned by is the depths of the creativity our students have,” Brady said. “The work, the projects, the performances that are coming out of kids bedrooms and closets and basements that, honestly has made me cry many times.” 

PIM has intentionally and single-mindedly invested in distance learning this year, trying to create an online community without spending too many resources on the logistics of trying to bring students back in person. Their enrollment, in contrast to many schools in Minnesota, has remained relatively steady this year. 

But not every charter or district in the state has had the same focus on distance learning. Many have attempted to get students into classrooms safely. As a result they’ve had to ride the waves of fluctuating COVID-19 case rates. In Moose Lake in northern Minnesota, that’s meant changing learning scenarios 10 different times over the past year. 

In Braham, a small district in central Minnesota, school leaders outsourced distance learning to a separate online school in order to save teachers the trouble of teaching virtually and in person at the same time. At first, 96 kids opted for distance learning. Braham superintendent Ken Gagner said that number is now down to around 30. 

“Once they felt, for whatever reason, once they felt conditions were safe, they came back,” Gagner said.

Bloomington Public Schools is another district that has had its high school students in distance learning since September. But on Monday they welcomed secondary students back to buildings.

Akram Osman is the principal of Kennedy High School in east Bloomington. He said he has sorely missed walking through crowded hallways at school, seeing the happy faces of students. 

Distance learning has hit some in his school harder than others, he said. Some have taken on more hours at work or responsibilities with siblings now that they’re not reporting to school buildings. Others have struggled with mental health, internet connections, language barriers or lack of support. He’s worked to figure out safe ways to bring targeted groups of students into the building for extra support and meetings with social workers and school counselors. 

“We were able to determine what students would benefit most from an opportunity coming in and safely having a connection with a caring adult who look over the grades, ask some key questions to kind of try to get to the root cause of some of the challenges the student might be facing or disengagement,” Osman said. “Yes, this is our new reality, but then we still gotta get kids to graduation.” 

Osman and his colleagues have completely reinvented the wheel this year. But it’s hard to evaluate how effective all their efforts have been while they’re still in the thick of one of the most challenging years they’ve ever faced.  

A young woman smiling at the camera while standing outside.
Bhavya Sivaram, photographed in July on the Minnesota River Valley Bridge.
Courtesy of Bhavya Sivaram

For Bhavya Sivaram, a senior in Bloomington, distance learning has been a challenge. She’s appreciated how understanding and supportive her teachers have been when she struggles with motivation. And she’s invested time in extracurricular business and speech clubs online that have helped her feel connected. Her circle of friends and acquaintances has narrowed dramatically over the past year. 

“(It’s) hard. With this distance (learning), you tend to not talk to the people you talk to every day in class or anyone you’re not as close to,” Sivaram said. “The social aspect is the part that is the hardest part because I like to see people at school.” 

She’s remained connected  with a small set of friends through texting. Sometimes they’ll do Zoom study sessions: quietly finishing assignments with their computer cameras on. 

Sometimes, though, she feels adrift, marooned in her room with the computer, staring at a grid of blank Zoom boxes on her screen. It can make it hard to get out of bed and log in to class on time. On the hard days, she sleeps a lot and spends time thinking about future plans: connecting with friends outside over the summer and going to classes in person when she starts college in the fall. She’s holding out hope she’ll be able to do high school graduation in person.

“The assumption that online is really easy...it’s not as easy as it seems,” Sivaram said. “People are dealing with school and with work and other extracurriculars and some people have mental health issues with staying home.” 

Even though it’s been hard, Sivaram, along with a quarter of her classmates, is not planning to go back to in-person classes at her Bloomington High School now that that’s a possibility. 

“Even though I really want to go back to school, I still don’t feel like it’s safe enough,” Sivaram said. “I just decided to stick to distance.”

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.