Minnesota parents and educators share distance learning frustrations with legislators

    Parents and educators on Jan. 6 shared their frustrations with distance learning with the Education Finance and Policy Committee, headed by chair Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes.

    Parents and educators in support of resuming in-person classes shared with legislators Wednesday their distance learning frustrations and hopes for a quick return to school.

    Elementary schools statewide are allowed to reopen this month under Gov. Tim Walz’s recent update to the state’s Safe Learning Plan, while middle and high schools will continue to use in-person learning, distance learning or a blend of the two based on the spread of the coronavirus in their communities. Parents told members of the Senate Education Finance and Policy Committee that keeping students in distance learning through the spring would harm their mental health and academic progress.

    Kyle Christensen, a parent of three students in the Farmington Public Schools, said his children are suffering because of social isolation, and his two middle school sons are struggling academically. One of his children has an Individualized Education Plan for academic, emotional and social learning, and he isn’t getting the support he needs despite teachers’ best efforts, Christensen said.

    “He’s falling behind academically and socially, and it’s not easy seeing my son, who used to love going to school, dread waking up each day because he just doesn’t see the point,” Christensen  said. “A lot of us (parents) are just done pretending that this is OK.”

    Rashad Turner, parent of a middle schooler and president of the Minnesota Parent Union, said distance learning has been disastrous for many students and strained families’ budgets.

    “(Families’) stories are horrifying and mirror our education gaps, which are criminal,” Turner said, referencing Minnesota’s educational opportunity and achievement gaps. “Keep in mind that our children need to be in school. They want to be in school. Teachers want to be in school, but a return to normal for a lot of our children in Minnesota means they still won’t be able to read.”

    Research on the spread of COVID-19 in schools is limited, but recent studies suggest that schools don’t cause significant transmission of the virus, as long as community spread of the virus is already relatively low. Still, children can become infected with COVID-19, although they’re less likely to become seriously ill, and spread it to others.

    Education Minnesota, the union representing more than 70,000 teachers, said in a statement Thursday that the state’s new COVID-19 restrictions — which loosen limits on indoor dining and entertainment venues like movie theaters, among others — could threaten schools’ reopening plans.   

    “Educators want to be back in their buildings with their students when conditions are safe,” said Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, in a written statement. “We’re growing concerned that a post-holiday spike of infections fueled by the new COVID-19 variant and transmission in bars, restaurants and gyms will come together with delays in testing and vaccinations to make reopening school buildings impossible in many communities.”

    Rilyn Eischens
    Rilyn Eischens is a data reporter with the Reformer. Rilyn is a Minnesota native and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.