The MSR, in partnership with the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), North Point Health Center, Children’s Hospital, and Insight News, will publish regular articles reporting on our bi-monthly virtual Town Halls taking on issues related to the COVID pandemic. The series is titled WE GOOD? COVID-19 & Black Minnesota.
Distance learning exposes long-festering inequities
Distance learning has had its successes and failures as well as concerns about the best way to proceed when school doors reopen this fall. On May 20 the virtual Town Hall series “WE GOOD? COVID-19 & Black Minnesota” focused on education in the African American community, how the pandemic has affected it and what this means for the future.
“Education had an issue before COVID-19, and it is going to continue to have issues to the Black community,” NAACP Youth and College Director Tiffany Dena Loftin told the MSR. “Educational change should be about equity, not equality,” she said, adding that teachers and educational support staff must be culturally qualified.
Minnesota schools have been closed since late March due to shelter-in-place orders. The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) issued “distance learning” guidelines for schools: Teachers provide daily instruction through on-line and learning packets, and keep in contact with students through on-line, phone and email.
Distance learning has revealed that a digital divide exists nationally and locally. It has disproportionately affected Black students in his South Minneapolis district, Minnesota State Sen. Jeff Hayden (D-Minneapolis) said during last week’s “WE GOOD?” virtual Town Hall. “Distance learning hasn’t worked… Children didn’t have the devices” at first, he noted.
Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) Accountability, Research and Equity Chief Eric Moore confirmed this in an interview with the MSR. He said 70% of MPS Black students didn’t have laptops at home, and 20% didn’t have internet access. But the District provided an estimated 2,000 students and families with free laptops, and digital hotspots were also provided where needed.
“Everyone, including teachers and staff, had to learn how to do distance learning to support student learning,” said Moore. “The first challenge was to make sure that the students have the tools to be able to engage in distance learning.”
How statewide schools will be reopened this fall has yet to be determined.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has provided reopening guidelines that among other things include schools, explaining that they must screen students, teachers and staff upon entering the building. Schools cannot open if social distancing is not in place, and everyone will be required to wear face masks.
The MDE has advised staggered start and dismissal times and limiting non-essential visitors. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) recommends smaller class sizes (12-15 students), staggered lunch times, and portable classrooms. The American Enterprise Institute, a conservative group, has recommended that school districts to use a one-size-fits-all approach to reopening but meet all students’ needs.
“We are looking at all those different scenarios,” said Moore. “How do you deliver quality instruction, and how many students can fit in a given classroom? How do you transport students to school safely?
“We could do a hybrid model, a half-day model, [or] two days for students, then two days off,” Moore continued. “There are a variety of different models. We are trying to think about how do we provide the educational support but also look at safety. We have to rely on the guidance from the State and the Department of Health on what is the right time to be able to do it.”
Realigning current school buildings to meet social distancing guidelines will be challenging as well, former Minneapolis superintendent Bernadeia Johnson pointed out. “Socialization as part of learning may change,” she said. “There will have to be some innovation and creativity to come out of this.”
COVID-19 is shining a painfully bright spotlight on America’s educational inequities. A 2019 Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis study found that 4th grade Black students fall more than 30% behind Whites in reading proficiency, nearly 40% behind in math proficiency by 8th grade, and at least 20% behind Whites in graduation rates.
Some school districts were ahead of others when it came to supplying students with the technology for in-home learning. Town Hall participant Theresa Battle, superintendent of the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District, said that voters in her District passed a “tech levy” in 2015, so they were already prepared with one-to-one devices for junior and high school students.
Battle pointed out that the distance learning experience has been “illuminating. It has revealed our heart and soul and exposed vulnerabilities and inequities.”
“Most students [need] structure,” added panelist Lauretta Dawolo Towns, a Roseville teacher. “We have to rethink our approach to education, partnering with families, and working with students.”
“We can no longer keep it a secret on the things our children are facing,” Robbinsdale Area Schools Superintendent Carlton Jenkins said during the Town Hall. “Our entire world has changed… The next question is how we are going to move forward.”
Panelist Rose McGee, a Minnesota Humanities Center program officer, said the pandemic “busted” the achievement gap wide open, amplifying those things which are already a mess. These things have to be addressed in a way that is sustainable. How do we as a community pull in [Black] educators that understand how to teach Black students better?”
According to McGee, the achievement gap has grown wider and broader. “It has exposed some of the issues that some White teachers have had in communicating with Black children. Children can’t show up if they don’t know how to show up. This may create an opportunity to find ways to teach Black children better.”
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.