DULUTH — We may not know for years, perhaps for a generation: How has this unusual COVID-19 year — with its distance learning, mix of in-person and virtual classes, limited days of instruction, reduced opportunities for children to be children together, and more — affected education and development for school kids?
A quartet of bills approved this week by the Minnesota Senate could go a long way toward finding out. The bills aren’t perfect, but they would get at the very important need to gauge our shared future. And if adjustments in classroom instruction necessitated by the pandemic can be identified, then they can be made.
“As children return to school, we can clearly see gaps in their education that are the product of the hardship of this last year,” Sen. Jason Rarick, R-Brook Park, pointed out in a column recently. “As we look to get our students back on track, these shortfalls must be addressed. The reforms passed today give our education system the flexibility necessary to succeed.”
The first would help give Minnesota educators, parents, and others a feel for where we’re at academically, a baseline for our state. The bill would require Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment tests, or MCAs, to be administered this spring. The tests are given annually statewide, but weren’t last year due to the pandemic, to continually measure student achievement in meeting reading, mathematics, and science standards. As Rarick pointed out, they’re “objective, statewide measure(s) of student progress in core academic subjects.” Have students slipped this year? Has progress been maintained? Finding out makes good sense.
A second Senate-approved bill would suspend until 2023 any new state-mandated academic standards. This would help “students, families, teachers, and the Minnesota Department of Education to focus all of their effort and energy on recovering from COVID-19,” as Rarick wrote. A priority on recovery and a return to something resembling normal could be complicated by new educational standards. Such reforms can wait. Our educational system needs to reestablish itself right now and get back on a firm foundation first.
The third would give Minnesota school districts some welcome flexibility to address unexpected COVID-caused budget strains by allowing them, this school year only, to redirect reserved or restricted funds to other purposes.
And a fourth Senate bill passed this week would address a statewide shortage, especially in rural Minnesota, of substitute teachers by allowing applicant pools to be wider. Adequate numbers of qualified subs could help ensure in-person instruction — but Minnesota must continue to maintain stringent qualification requirements to ensure high-quality teaching, even for subs.
“There is widespread agreement about the impact distance learning is having on students,” Rarick wrote. “UNICEF has warned of a ‘lost generation’ and found school closures are ineffective; the Sahan Journal found the pandemic has had a ‘devastating’ impact on communities of color in St. Paul Public Schools; NPR reported on the mental health crisis that has intensified due to the pandemic; and CBS reported that a UK education watchdog found kids have seriously regressed due to COVID-19.”
Have children regressed here in Duluth, in the Northland, and across Minnesota? It’s an important question, with our very future at stake. So let’s find out. And then let’s help educators and school districts do something about it.
This other view is the opinion of the editorial board of our sister publication, the Duluth News Tribune.