Minneapolis Public Schools leaders say they want to begin the school year with remote instruction — delaying a potential return to in-person classes until later in the year, if it happens at all.
School districts across the state are awaiting Gov. Tim Walz’s announcement Thursday on whether they can fully reopen, continue with distance learning, or do some combination of the two. But Minneapolis school leaders said Tuesday night that they believe keeping students at home remains the best option for the state’s third-largest district, citing widespread concern from families and teachers about returning to school buildings and the complexity of setting up a “hybrid” instruction model with strict capacity limits and physical distancing requirements.
Superintendent Ed Graff said district officials want the school year to begin Sept. 8 with what they’re calling “distance learning with supports,” a model in which instruction and coursework would happen remotely — as it did this spring, when schools shut down amid the COVID-19 pandemic — but with school buildings open for some one-on-one tutoring, technology and mental health support for students.
“That [model] is definitely the best scenario for us, given the context of everything,” Graff said at Tuesday evening’s school board meeting.
The district’s plans won’t be official until after the governor’s announcement, and it will potentially require a vote of the board in early August. But it’s likely they’ll go forward if board members approve; Walz and officials with the state Department of Education have said school districts will have the flexibility to opt for distance learning this year, even if some or all schools are allowed to open in some form.
Graff and other district leaders pointed to recent surveys that show parents and staff reluctant to return to school in September. Though they cautioned that the survey results didn’t represent the full scope of families served by Minneapolis schools — nearly 74% of people who responded the survey were white, though students of color make up more than 62% of the district’s enrollment — they said it was clear many families aren’t ready for students to return to school.
Of the more than 12,000 families who took the survey, 30% said they wanted to continue with distance learning, while another 36% preferred a combination of online and in-person instruction. Larger shares of Black, American Indian and Hispanic families said they wanted school to remain online.
Meanwhile, close to 60% of Minneapolis teachers surveyed said they were “uncomfortable” or “very uncomfortable” about returning to work. About 11% of the district’s teachers said they would likely need to take a leave of absence if in-person classes resumed. About one-third said they either wouldn’t return or would need some kind of accommodation to feel safe.
“This matters because we want our teachers to be in a positive place when they are instructing our students,” said Eric Moore, the district’s senior accountability, research and equity officer.
The district has created a five-phase approach for the school year, illustrated with a “dial” that could be moved depending on the spread of the virus in the community and other factors. It ranges from distance learning with no access allowed in school buildings to full reopening. The “distance learning with supports” model proposed for the start of the school year is the second phase of the plan.
District leaders said they have spent the summer fine-tuning the software, planning and systems used for distance learning to make it a better experience than the one students and teachers experienced this spring. Among the changes are additional training for teachers, more predictable scheduling, and training for students and teachers in “digital literacy and digital citizenship.”
Graff said moving into a limited hybrid format would be a gradual process that may be considered in the first part of the school year. It would likely be designed to bring the youngest students — those in third grade or below — into buildings for part of the week, with older students likely remaining at home. Many of the details of such a plan, however, are still being worked out.
Also still unclear: whether Minneapolis and other districts would again provide child care for children of first responders, as they were directed to do this spring. Graff said school leaders are still waiting on those details, and others, from the governor.