Distance learning may worsen Minnesota’s achievement gaps, experts say

Lake Shore student Kristy Moore watches a video from a teacher on her phone and completes the assignment on her tablet because the video didn’t load on her tablet. Without access to broadband, the family of five relies on the hotspot for school and work while schools are closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Courtesy of Kathy Moore

As essential workers with four children at home, there’s no such thing as weekends anymore for Kelsey Henningson-Kaye and her husband.

As a physician assistant, Henningson-Kaye works 12-hour shifts at least three days a week at rural Ortonville Hospital, less than a mile from the South Dakota border. Her husband works six or seven days a week to keep his hardware store running since he had to lay off most of his employees. A coworker’s wife watches their children, ages 2 to 11, on the days that both parents are at work.

On those days, school begins when the exhausted parents get home, usually after 7 p.m. Finishing a day’s assignments takes at least two or three hours, so they use Saturdays and Sundays to get a head start on the coming week’s schoolwork.

After a month of distance learning, their 11-year-old son finishes some of his assignments without help, but Henningson-Kaye said their 9-year-old daughter needs constant support. The family recently found out that she’s eligible for special education services, but with schools closed for the rest of the year, it’s not clear when they’ll be able to meet with teachers to craft the detailed plan required for her to receive services.

School has always been difficult for both kids, who were in foster care for several years before Henningson-Kaye and her husband adopted them, and she worries they’ll lose progress after missing nearly three months of in-person instruction.

“I’m always fearful of them falling behind, but I’m definitely more fearful now,” she said. “Teachers have been very reassuring that everyone is going to be in the same boat, but I think it’s a little harder when your kid isn’t one of the high-achieving students that you know will catch up.”

Learning at home is difficult for all students during this period of unprecedented global uncertainty and risk — and students without access to extra support at home are even more likely to be left behind by distance learning, educators and advocates say. 

Gov. Tim Walz’s announcement Thursday that schools would remain closed through the end of this academic year has the support of public health experts who say it could help contain the COVID-19 pandemic, but the prolonged closure could have disastrous effects for low-income and marginalized students, worsening the state’s already-entrenched educational disparities.

“We’re going to start seeing large amounts of ‘summer loss,’ especially among our most underserved students — students without access to technology devices or professionals within the household who are able to teach and give space to learning,” said Joshua Crosson, director of the Minnesota education advocacy nonprofit EdAllies. “We should be very concerned.”

Accountability in distance learning

Between spring break and statewide school closures to plan for distance learning, some Minnesota students were out of school for nearly three consecutive weeks. On top of that, virtual teaching is less effective than in-person instruction even under normal circumstances, research shows.

To close technology gaps, districts across the state are sending out WiFi hotspots to get families online, and some businesses have offered temporary free internet service. Thus far, however, lawmakers haven’t introduced state policies that experts say could mitigate learning loss, like funding to increase internet access and providing incentives for teachers to be trained in online instruction.

Some researchers have also called for states to hold districts accountable for taking disparities into account in their distance learning plans and implementing the plans consistently. Although the Minnesota Department of Education’s guidance for districts emphasizes equity and accessibility, there is no formal accountability system in place to compel districts to comply.

And with Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments canceled, Minnesota will lose valuable data to understand how these whirlwind changes affected academic outcomes. Waiving standards-based assessments has been presented like a “gift,” when teachers and policymakers should be considering how to maintain academic rigor while being mindful of the strain many families are experiencing, Crosson said.

Teachers say the challenges have been acute since the distance learning period began March 30, after Walz first ordered all public K-12 schools to close starting March 18.

Fosston High School band and choir teacher Paul Peltier said he was grateful educators had that time to prepare; teachers in other states weren’t given as much notice. Still, he said it was a scramble to get ready for remote teaching.

Fosston High School band and choir teacher Paul Peltier poses in his home workspace, where he gives virtual lessons while Minnesota schools are closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“Imagine if you were told that in eight days, you’re going to have to totally retool everything you do about your job, and on day nine, you have to deliver. That’s what the charge has been,” he said. “We’re busting our bottoms to make sure that we can deliver the best possible, [most] meaningful experience at a distance for our kids.”

Balancing academics and well-being

With no access to broadband at home, the first month of distance learning was frustrating for Lake Shore resident Kathy Moore’s family. Moore and her husband have relied on hotspots and the occasional trip to Wendy’s for WiFi to run their marketing business from home for years, but that system isn’t enough to keep two working adults and three school-age children online at once.

Moore said her kids spend hours each day waiting for videos to load and redoing work lost to spotty service. She’s not sure how they can be expected to keep up with their peers when they can’t even access some assignments at home. 

“Homework that should take three hours takes six here because the internet is so slow. How is that right?” she said. “[There’s this] anxiety that it creates for my kids of, ‘I don’t want to be isolated. I don’t want to be behind. I don’t want to look like I’m not doing [my work].’”

Annie Mason, program director of elementary teacher education at the University of Minnesota, said educators and policymakers should focus on meeting students’ basic needs for now, rather than making academic progress. There’s “absolutely no academic learning that can happen” while people fear for their physical well-being and economic security, she said.

Two-hundred Minnesotans have died from COVID-19 as of April 22, with the pandemic not yet at its peak under some researchers’ estimations. The outbreak has also threatened the livelihoods of millions nationwide, with the greatest burdens falling on those already in precarious socioeconomic positions.

Over 530,000 Minnesotans applied for unemployment insurance benefits between mid-March and mid-April

— representing roughly 18% of the state’s workforce. People who can work from home are more likely to be white and affluent, while workers in especially hard-hit industries like food service, personal care and home health care are more likely to be lower-income and people of color.

Given the widespread fears and inequities, “this is not the time for an obsessive focus on academic learning,” Mason said.

Jen Sherman, a teacher at St. Paul Somali charter school Dugsi Academy, said she aims to plan lessons that are rigorous yet entertaining and manageable. She recognizes that schoolwork can’t be a top priority for some of her students right now.

During a typical school year, Sherman’s middle school students occasionally bring infant siblings to school until another family member can pick them up. Now, many students have to care for their younger siblings all day while their parents are at work, she said.

Lake Shore student Nick Moore works on an assignment near his family’s hotspot. Without access to broadband, the family of five relies on the hotspot for school and work while schools are closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Courtesy of Kathy Moore

Since Dugsi Academy launched distance learning, Sherman has had one-on-one video calls with students at all times of the day — even as late as 9:30 p.m. — to help whenever they have time for schoolwork. She has built close relationships with students and their families over the years, but not being able to check on them in person every day makes her anxious, she said.

“Any teacher who is a good teacher has this sixth sense for their classroom. I can’t tell you how I know what a kid is doing and how they’re doing and how they’re feeling, I just know,” Sherman said. “I’m missing that, and I feel like I’m missing multiple senses — like I’m missing my sense of touch or my sense of hearing.”

Support for English language learners

The challenges are even greater for students whose parents speak languages other than English at home. St. Cloud Area School District has already made changes aimed at making information more accessible during the school closures, said Lori Posch, the district’s director of teaching and learning.

Posch and other administrators met with leaders from Somali and Spanish communities to discuss their concerns and needs before distance learning began in the district. Families said that although the district’s posts are provided in English, Somali and Spanish, many still couldn’t find information because they didn’t know how to navigate the website. Parents who primarily speak other languages also said they weren’t comfortable leaving messages on the district’s English-only helpline, Posch said.

Now, the district explains exactly where to locate relevant materials online and set up new helplines in both Somali and Spanish, Posch said. She and Superintendent Willie Jett also appeared on a Somali TV station and radio station to talk about the closures.

“We have learned a lot in the past few days that will make us better moving forward,” Posch said.

Rosalía, a Minneapolis mom of three elementary schoolers, said the transition to distance learning was difficult since her family didn’t have internet at home when schools closed. Her children received packets of schoolwork before the district provided a Chromebook, and she said in Spanish that she worries their academics will suffer because of the changes to their education.

“I hope teachers keep up with students, calling them individually,” said Rosalía, who declined to give her last name because of her undocumented status, “and ensuring they stay in good communication and keep tabs on their progress.”

‘What can we rebuild differently?’

Some educational theorists hope the disruption will spur educators and policymakers to rethink certain practices.

With standardized tests canceled across the country and most educators unable to give traditional exams, schools could introduce alternative methods to assess learning, Mason said. 

She suggested portfolio reviews, for instance, wherein instructors meet individually with students to discuss their work. Research suggests these strategies may be better than standardized tests at measuring student learning and allow for higher-quality instruction.

Crosson said he’s also optimistic that lessons learned during the pandemic could improve education for underserved students in the future, since schools have been forced to think intentionally about equity and access in new ways.

“What can we watch fall away that hasn’t been serving us, and what can we rebuild differently?” Mason asked.

While experts consider the future of education, parents like Henningson-Kaye, the physician assistant, aren’t in a position to think that far ahead as they focus on getting through each day and preparing for what the coming months may bring.

Although Big Stone County hasn’t been hit hard by the pandemic yet, Henningson-Kaye said health care workers there expect a surge in cases in the next 60 days. She’s afraid of what will happen if the small, rural Ortonville Hospital is overwhelmed by patients and what working longer hours at her high-risk job will mean for her family.

“There’s not a lot I can do for the kids when I’m at work, and there’s not a lot I can do at work because I don’t have a lot of patients,” she said. “It ends up being a lot of time to sit and think about what the outcomes will be.”

Ricardo Lopez contributed reporting.