Minnesota teachers are concerned about continuing distance learning this fall but also worried about the safety of returning to the classroom, according to a statewide survey released Tuesday by the University of Minnesota.
More than 13,000 primary and secondary educators responded to the U’s survey in May and June, after the state’s schools had moved to distance learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The results didn’t offer any concrete answers about whether distance learning should be continued, said Katie Pekel, the lead researcher on the survey and principal-in-residence at the U’s College of Education and Human Development. But it did highlight the mixed emotions that teachers feel about the question.
Teachers said they cared most about building relationships with students and wanted to do that in person but also wanted to keep themselves and their students safe from COVID-19. Many said that while they felt they had successfully connected with students and families in teaching online, fostering strong relationships was their biggest concern. Educators weren’t all saying that distance learning was either “glorious” or “horrific,” Pekel said.
“That’s an illustration of the tension we see in the whole report. … They agreed that it was hard and they want to be better,” she said.
Among the top challenges that respondents listed were assessing and engaging students in distance learning, and meeting the needs of special education students. The survey also showed that educators are concerned about students’ access to technology.
The findings can be used at both statewide and district levels to better understand teachers’ concerns and needs for the next school year, Pekel said. For example, respondents said the multitude of online platforms used for teaching began to feel overwhelming. They said that both teachers and families might benefit from additional training and a helpline for technical problems.
But educators are also hopeful, Pekel said. Teachers said they had learned more about using technology and found new ways to communicate with families. In the survey, they expressed a readiness to apply those lessons again in the fall, no matter what decision is made about distance learning.
The report comes just before a rally for a “safe, equitable return to school,” planned for Thursday at the State Capitol and organized by Education Minnesota, the state’s largest teachers’ union.
Three local unions — Anoka Hennepin Education Minnesota, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and St. Paul Federation of Educators — also are addressing a petition to Gov. Tim Walz, calling for several conditions involving public health and equity to be met before in-person teaching resumes. Those include compliance with public health standards; free COVID-19 testing for students, staff and family members; prioritizing space for students; hiring more essential staffers; and investing in ventilation improvements.
“Right now, without knowing if schools are going to be safe, educators know that distance learning is probably the safest scenario,” said Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota. “But at the same time, not all of them felt the most successful doing it.”
The U’s survey results and the detailed comments left by many respondents should be considered in the decision about what school will look like this fall, Specht said.
“We have information about what educators think about this,” she said. “When we match that up with numbers from the public health perspective, there’s a lot of information there to make a decision. I think people are just looking for that decision to be done.”