For the final two months of the 2019-20 school year, and because of the COVID-19 pandemic, students learned far from their classrooms after Gov. Tim Walz ordered online learning.
So how did that work out? Was the move to statewide online learning a success? Three joint meetings of the House Education Policy Committee and the House Education Finance Division have been scheduled with the purpose of finding out.
Wednesday’s hearing featured testimony from students, parents and representatives of student support organizations, who all concurred that it hasn’t worked very well. In addition, they said that lower-income and special education students have suffered the most.
So what were the chief problems? According to testifiers, these challenges stood out.
One parent, Ambar Christina Hanson, said of her children’s school, that “98% of kids receive free or reduced-cost lunch. There were about 200 kids who didn’t have access to laptops for three weeks. Some didn’t yet have access to technology in May and June.”
“The speed, reliability and amount of broadband is a problem,” said Marva Lynn Shellenberger, the mother of a student at St. Paul’s Highland Park High School. “Ours is limited. There may not be enough to have a video conference call. … Reliable and affordable internet should have been available to all students. If you can afford high-speed internet, your children do better.”
It’s one of the primary reasons that, according to Sondra Samuels, president and chief executive officer of Minneapolis’ Northside Achievement Zones, “That achievement gap is swelling exponentially.”
Engaging with teachers
“Coming back after the original period of no instruction, which was designed to prepare, I was shocked by the lack of structure,” said Shikha Kumar, a Rochester Mayo High School student and member of the Minnesota Youth Council. “The majority of my classes did not have any lectures and there were no office hours. I often had to choose attending one class over another. The most difficult classes were those that didn’t have any interaction. We were handed vague weekly presentations.”
“My homework was backing up and my grades were going down,” said Bryan Hernandez Chavero, an Apple Valley middle school student. “I had to reach out to teachers and they didn’t answer back until three days later.”
Parents complained of similar problems.
“We need more recommendations and a structured plan implemented to get our kids to engage,” said Bre Porter, the mother of two seventh graders. “We need more video conferencing.”
“It was clear that there had been no expectation to engage families as part of this,” Hanson added.
Special education students left behind
Shellenberger said her son is on the autism spectrum and, thanks to an individualized education program (IEP), his grades had been significantly improving prior to COVID-19.
“In distance learning, his IEP was abandoned and his teachers were not making alterations to his learning plan,” she said. “Mario, my son, enjoys the interaction of others. Sitting at home for him was like solitary confinement. … He would have benefitted from having a tutor or aide available, a study hall for help outside group instruction.”
Emmy Mastel is also the parent of special education students.
“Keeping our kids on track was another full-time job,” she said. “At our school’s special education council, a group of parents shared our difficulties. There was a collective feeling of being overwhelmed.”
So what about the fall?
Mai Moua, chief executive officer of Hmong American Partnership, quoted one parent as saying to her, “If distance learning continues, I’m going to quit my job. I’d rather go through public assistance than go through this again.”
Rep. Jim Davnie (DFL-Mpls) asked how things could change for the next school year.
“What I’ve been hearing is a staggering of the school week where some are Monday-Wednesday-Friday, others vice versa,” Samuels said. “Some summer programs are using more than one building and different floors, trying to keep the physical distancing requirements.”
Hanson added, “One suggestion is that younger children be able to be on-campus, then middle school and high school students have some hybrid, because they can do a better job of self-regulation. Those with an IEP and those affected by opportunity gaps and language learning would also be more on-campus.”
Speaking on behalf of Reopen Minnesota Schools, Stephanie Proper suggested that schools should go back to how they were before COVID-19.
“We are raising our children to be afraid of demons that won’t kill them,” she said. “Bring our children back without masks and distancing. Let them play sports and do theater.”
When Rep. John Huot (DFL-Rosemount) asked Proper about how that scenario could affect the health of teachers and staff, she said, “The average age of a teacher is 40 to 45. They won’t be seriously affected. … They can take precautions, if they wanted.”
Thursday’s remote meeting is scheduled to feature teachers, counselors, social workers and others, while Tuesday’s testifiers are to include Department of Education representatives, principals and school board members.