Last week, the Minnesota House Representative for Blaine, Minnesota, Nolan West, shared a series of tweets made by Minneapolis-based writer, Ann Bauer. Ann had observed a Zoom meeting between parents in an unnamed, well-off Minnesota school district and their DFL MN Senator. The screenshots of the tweets can be seen below, but the gist is this – Minnesota is Failing Kids.
It’s not just the grades, the lack of social support, sports, or opportunities where kids are being failed. And it’s not just the schools that are lacking when it comes to supporting our kids, especially the 12+ crowd during this pandemic.
This summer, Governor Walz signed Executive Order 20-82 implementing the “Safe Learning Plan for 2020-2021 School Year”. The plan allowed schools to operate based on the local prevalence of COVID-19 in their communities. It outlined three learning models, distance, hybrid, and in-person. Which model a school uses is determined by the 14-day county case level rate per 10,000 people. If the number of cases per 10,000 people is under 10, in-person learning is acceptable for all students. Between 10-20, learning would be in-person for elementary, and hybrid for secondary. If over 30, all secondary students would be distance learning, if over 50 all students would be distance learning.
But “Life is what happens when you’re busy making plans” (John Lennon).
While most schools started the year based on this model, the Minnesota education system quickly became a free-for-all. For schools that started out distance learning, teacher’s unions used their sway to keep it that way, even when case numbers would have allowed in-person or hybrid learning. For schools that started in-person, the numbers in Walz’s plan became arbitrary as the Minnesota Department of Health consulted with schools individually, deciding that in-person could continue when the case rate jumped up to say, 15, because most of those cases were in a specific population (nursing home or college campus) that didn’t directly impact the school population.
And while it’s clear the state government, the schools, and the department of health have only been trying to make the best out of a bad situation, their focus has been too much on the logistics and not on the people.
Ann Bauer’s account of the zoom meeting highlights this. She joined the meeting thinking that this overwhelmingly white, rich, school district would be doing fine. Even the parents in the meeting acknowledged that they had the resources to get tutors and technology to help their kids, but money doesn’t guarantee a positive outcome. Bauer shares how she saw fathers crying, moms having outbursts, and a teen girl with more composure than most in the meeting sharing how the last few months have impacted her.
It’s true students are failing classes and falling behind. Can you imagine taking your first year of a foreign language and not once actually having the opportunity to speak it? Have you tried the online math programs students are using, like IXL, where the teacher assigns a benchmark percentage for the student to reach, for example, 85%, where the questions get harder as you go? If a student answers questions up to 79% correctly, but then gets one wrong they don’t get to try again, but instead bumped back to 65% with the program assuming if you answer more of the easier questions leading up to the one you got wrong you’ll be able to figure out when it comes up again. What a disheartening way to learn. Not only do you not have a teacher or friends around to ask for help, but when you pick the wrong answer, you have to spend 10-15 more minutes just trying to get back up to the point where you got the question wrong, and this can (and does) happen several times until students are in tears feeling dumb and destroyed, scared to answer the hard question, worried they will never successfully finish the assignment. How much should that 85%… a solid “B” cost?
The biggest omission from the Governor’s education plan, which lists its “Safe Learning Plan Goals” as prioritizing safety, prioritizing in-person learning, considering infectious risk and transmission among different age groups, supporting planning while permitting flexibility in districts, and taking into account disease prevalence at a local level, is… heart.
Our education system has not taken into account that our students, especially the middle and secondary students, have lived the last year in an elevated state of fear and confusion, coupled with adults in their lives raging about political conflicts, while losing nearly everything that defines them – their friends, sports, groups, even their part-time jobs. Yet, we expect them to successfully navigate a cobbled together education plan that most adults wouldn’t be able to understand.
Our students need more than tutors and iPads. They need hope and compassion. They need creativity and flexibility. And most of all they need both teachers and parents willing to make this situation as comfortable as possible. They need parents who take a few breaths to release the anger of receiving yet another missing assignment notification, before climbing onto the bed with their forlorn daughter to help her get that assignment done. And teachers that reach out to parents when they see students struggling more than usual, especially when it’s out of the ordinary.
We can’t wait for the return of in-person school for secondary students – they need help now, and that job falls squarely on the parents. It’s time to sharpen our skills and dig into that advanced geometry, proofread a paper, come up with some incentives for finishing assignments, or simply ask our students to tell us what they are working on. The bonus – it’s guaranteed that you will be amazed by the young person you’ve been raising all these years.
Flexibility, creativity, compassion, incentives, participation, hope… some might say that is too simple. Others may say it’s coddling. If it’s simple, what’s the harm in trying it? And if it’s coddling? I can’t think of anyone who deserves to be handled with “kid-gloves” more than the children that have endured nearly a full year of a pandemic that offers no quick end in sight.
Whether our kids get COVID or not, we want them to be survivors of this pandemic, not victims. The goal should be to get them to the other side with their spirit intact with the hope they can grow from what they’ve endured, not broken and distraught at how far behind they have fallen, believing it’s their fault and their failure.