We are facing an undeclared education emergency.

When we closed schools six months ago, Minnesota already suffered one of the largest racially and economically unjust learning gaps in the country. With schools closed, those gaps got bigger — much bigger. If all we do is reopen with schools operating as they were six months ago — whether in-person or online — we will have allowed a bad situation to get substantially worse and crippled the futures of our most vulnerable students.

This is an emergency.

COVID-19 has cost us plenty. It has infected nearly 60,000 Minnesotans, killed over 1,600, and thrown 300,000 or more out of work. It has also robbed more than 800,000 of our children of vitally important learning.

When schools were closed six months ago, the average Black student in fourth grade was nearly one year behind the average white student, a measure of the persistent racial inequities in our schools. (This is based on the National Assessment of Education Progress, which is the only national measure we have of learning.) Once the schools closed learning largely stopped. Remote and distance learning didn’t work for many — but it was a true disaster for those children who were already furthest behind.

Research reported by Rilyn Eischens in the Daily Reformer on July 31 shows that the average student is likely to have lost half a year’s worth of learning with an incomplete school year followed by a summer without learning opportunities. For children of color, for low-income students, for those without access to the internet, the results will have been even more devastating. They are likely to have lost up to a full year’s worth of learning.

The debate over opening schools seems to have missed this point entirely. Whether instruction is done in person or online won’t matter much if that instruction is not radically changed to account for these changed circumstances. Simply put, an average fourth-grade teacher would normally have started the next school year with about half the class at grade level and some students as much as one year behind. This year, however, that teacher will start with some students at grade level, but most others reading below grade level — and some as much as two years behind. A three-year gap in a single classroom means that last year’s teaching strategies will be no match for this year’s teaching realities.

Just as COVID is leading us to major changes in health care, employment and racial justice, it can be a catalyst for radical change in education both immediately and in the long run.

Immediately, we must focus on bringing all of our elementary school students up to grade level as quickly as possible. Robert Slavin, a renowned education expert at Johns Hopkins, has recommended intensive tutoring as perhaps the most effective strategy to make up for lost learning. So, here’s a proposal:

From those hundreds of thousands of people who are currently unemployed and underemployed, recruit 10,000 (young and old) to act as tutors. Have them each commit to providing at least 1,000 hours of tutoring next year for 30 to 50 students in small groups and to move them more than one grade level in both reading and math. Do this in addition to what their regular teachers will be doing, whether in-person or remotely. That’s 10 million hours of direct support to 300,000-500,000 students at an estimated total cost of $200 million. Federal COVID money could be the source of funding.

The tutoring could be done in empty schoolrooms, churches and offices, or it could be done online. As Slavin suggests, we can build on the success of programs like the Minnesota Reading Corps and Math Corps (www.minnesotareadingcorps.org) to scale up, recruit, train and support these tutors.

For the longer term, it is time to take radical action to close our persistent, racially unjust learning gaps. While there are many variables that go into student learning, effective teaching of an effective curriculum are the in-school variables that matter most. The racial and economic learning gaps in our schools reflect the lack of effective preparation provided to our teachers and the lack of an effective, relevant curriculum.

Hurricane Katrina caused an education emergency in New Orleans. Rather than trying to reopen a broken system, New Orleans left schools closed for a year while it radically rethought what to teach and how. It worked. We could do the same.

Use the lockdown that Neel Kashkari and Michael Osterholm have proposed (“We need another stint of staying at home,” Aug. 12) but extend it to keep schools closed for six months to a year. While they’re closed, use the intensive tutoring described above to engage students. That will give teachers, principals and communities the time they need to reflect, redesign, retrain and reopen schools that would end education inequities. Beyond that we should build on the work of Black Men Teach (www.blackmenteachtc.org) and others to further close the learning gap by closing the gap in who is teaching in our schools.

The catastrophic effects of COVID-19 on our students are, like the virus itself, almost invisible, while posing a critical threat to their lives and livelihoods, and to racial justice. We have good evidence about what to do to address the immediate effects and longer-term needs. This is an educational emergency and we must dedicate the same extraordinary effort to the education of our children as we have to fighting the disease.


Peter Hutchinson is a former superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools.