When North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum closed schools and mandated distance learning because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Bowman County school district was prepared.

Vocational agriculture teacher Mary Fischer, the EPIC coach for Bowman County Farmers Union, said the district went to distance learning a week and a half prior to the governor’s decision.

“The transition has gone really well,” she said. “We have an excellent IT department at our school. We were all trained on Microsoft Teams prior to this happening, so the staff had a really good foundation going into it. The kids have been trained on it also. You don’t plan for something like this, but it’s nice to be able to use that technology.”

Microsoft Teams is a video conference platform that allows students and teachers to interact face-to-face using an internet connection. Fischer said the first major hiccup happened the day the rest of the schools joined in on the distance learning.

“The internet crashed,” she said. “We were live in class when it happened. You could just see them dropping off the screen.”

Consolidated, a telecommunications cooperative in Dickinson, covers much of southwest North Dakota with high speed internet. Public Relations and Marketing Manager Rhonda Fitterer said she understands why it might seem as though too many people jumped on the internet at once and caused it to crash, but it was actually just a coincidence.

“That happened all over the country and around the world,” she said. “There was a server pointed at a code that wasn’t correct. Any (internet service provider) that had servers pointed at that code, their service went down. The downtime was less than an hour. It didn’t have anything to do with increased activity – it was just an anomaly.”

Fischer also noted how fast the problem was fixed.

“It didn’t take them long – we were up and running the same afternoon,” she said. “Consolidated knew right away.”

One of the issues with distance learning is the lack of an internet connection in some homes. Fischer said a few Bowman students didn’t have access.

“We did have some, but Consolidated worked with those families to make sure they got internet access,” Fischer said. “And we’re fortunate enough to be a 1-to-1 school, meaning every one of our students has a school-issued device.”

Fitterer said Consolidated sprang into action when the governor closed the schools.

“We reached out to our area schools and asked them if they had needs,” she said. “In today’s world, most do have the internet. We did get requests from families that did not, and we are serving them for the remainder of the school year at no cost to those families.”

The biggest class Fischer teaches has 22 students, and she admitted it can be difficult getting interaction with everyone. Still, it’s worth it.

“It gets better every week,” she said. “There is no substitute for face-to-face contact with students. We try to do a verbal roll call, so I can see their face and hear their voice. But we’ve had phenomenal attendance – the kids really are participating. It’s been trying, but we’re working through it together.”

– Chris Aarhus, NDFU Editor