Schools are the center of community life in rural northern Wisconsin. Because of the pandemic schools in Wisconsin have been empty. But courses are moving forward, teachers are teaching and students are learning. Students can still study independently, but some can also meet their teachers and classmates from home over fiber-optic cable, copper wire or airwaves.

Darren Nyhus teaches agriculture and science as well as advises the FFA chapter at Northwestern High School near Maple, Wisconsin.

“I teach grades 9 through 12 – Agricultural Science, Anatomy and Biology,” he said. “We usually do face-to-face instruction with a lot of hands-on projects and labs. Our last day with students in school was March 13.

“Our first day doing online instruction was March 25. We are using mostly Google Classroom; the transition was relatively smooth. We got Chromebooks out to families who needed them. We mail things to the few students who don’t have internet connectivity. I post assignments in the morning; students complete them during the day. We also can do video chatting together in real time.

“What I notice is students miss time together and interaction with each other. They miss the interaction they get at school. The kids and families that are here make up a close-knit community. Students are learning, but I don’t know if we will get the same amount of content covered. Some of the labs, like one we do on taxidermy, can be different. I can show a video but the hands-on together they miss. My wildlife class can complete journals of what they see outside. The can keep track of species they see, what time of day and weather conditions. Uploading assignments to online platforms has been useful. It can keep students and parents up-to-date on assignments. I would not be surprised that in the future snow days become online learning days.”

Northland College is located on the outskirts of Ashland, Wisconsin. A rural environmental liberal-arts college on Lake Superior, Northland is known for outdoor experiential education. Jonathan Martin, associate professor of forestry, said the transition to distance learning from classroom and outdoor field instruction has gone smoothly.

“I’m doing my sustainable forest-management course online,” he said. “The only thing I cannot provide my students this term is the physical travel to the diversity of forest types we have here. I can’t expect each student to buy all of the expensive forestry gear for the course, like Biltmore sticks used for measuring diameters, heights and log scaling. One of their tasks is to follow instructions to create one. They will use a compass and pace out chains to measure approximate plots. All they need is their two legs and a compass.”

Martin’s students will be able to complete assignments independently. Students will also be provided data from forests in Wisconsin. He’s created online content in small modules that can be streamed for the class. Some of those modules will be used for skills instruction for future on campus classes. Class discussions are being held online at different times of the day.

He said there’s joy in working at a small institution of higher learning in a remote rural location.

“Northland offers education that is experienced in the woods, the lakes, the rivers, the wolf packs, the deer herds that are right here,” he said. “While Northland College champions environmental initiatives, we also live it. Our commitment to the environment is more than academic.”

During the pandemic rural schools in Northern Wisconsin have continued to teach and to move the nation forward through learning while preserving community.

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Jason Maloney is an “elderly” farm boy from Marinette County, Wisconsin. He’s a retired educator, a retired soldier and a lifelong Wisconsin resident. He lives on the shore of Lake Superior with his wife, Cindy Dillenschneider, and Red, a sturdy loyal Australian Shepherd.