Three weeks into distance learning, Lisa Terrell worried that her first-grade daughter Iris might not be able to stick it out in the Spanish immersion program at Minnetonka Public Schools.

Iris needed casual Spanish conversation, her mother said, and it wasn't happening in this new online world. Then, more one-on-one reading sessions opened up, and Iris was back on track.

"It was a game changer," Terrell said.

The key, as it turned out, was that personal connection — even when accomplished virtually. A Star Tribune survey of parents shows that the more frequent the live video sessions between staff and students, the greater their satisfaction with their children's learning.

Nearly 3 in 4 parents whose children had daily live conferencing rated their experience with distance learning as a 4 or a 5 on a 1-to-5 scale, according to the survey that ran in April and drew more than 500 responses.

But overall, the survey results also revealed mixed feelings about the state's move to remote learning — a shift that was extended through at least the remainder of the current school year.

Only one-quarter of parents, for example, reported that video conferencing was occurring on a daily basis.

In addition, while 60% of parents said they believed the amount of work was "about right," and 60% said the work itself seemed "challenging enough," just half thought that online learning was going well. Students in the lower elementary grades — kindergarten through second grade — who were thought to be thriving stood at 42%.

Consider, too: Only parents whose children shifted to online learning participated in the survey. Not every child has made the move.

Minneapolis Public Schools reported on April 10 that about 30% of its 33,838 students were not engaged in distance learning that day, with about 4,200 awaiting delivery of devices or learning materials.

Gov. Tim Walz acknowledged recently that the state needed to do more to ease the inequities that come with online learning, among them a lack of broadband access in rural areas and student access to digital devices.

He also took note of the challenges that a teacher faces in meeting the individual needs of students: "That screen is not going to replace that bond that we have in the classroom," he said.

The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE), in turn, has recently set out to help educators develop new ways to forge relationships with students and spur engagement in online work.

Where children attend school was not among the questions that the newspaper asked of parents. But, in written comments, several districts won praises, among them Edina, Columbia Heights, St. Paul, Bloomington and Wayzata.

A parent whose first-grader attends a private school within the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan School District said that it appeared the public schools were ready for the change, but her school clearly was not.

"It is a LOT of work to keep track of all the different places I have to look for all the different assignments," she wrote, suggesting students should be given devices with preloaded lesson plans.

Interviews with parents showed just how much they value the personal connections.

'Are you doing OK?'

Sara Kosiorek, whose son is a senior at Eastview High School in Apple Valley, said she was concerned less about him taking only an hour to do his homework than about the sadness of him missing out on a graduation ceremony — and the feeling the school year already was over in his mind. She credited a teacher for calling not to inquire about his assignments, but to ask: "Are you doing OK?"

Amanda McFarlane has an eighth-grade daughter with special needs in the White Bear Lake Area Schools who is assigned a paraprofessional to work with her one on one. The mother now is playing that role — in addition to working full time — with the end result being that a son with whom McFarlane cannot spend enough time on school work will have to repeat kindergarten.

Kim Oppelt, who has two children at Duluth Edison Charter Schools' North Star Academy, said technological literacy was instilled in them beginning in kindergarten. No steep learning curve was required, she said. Teachers have helped families, she said, and students created a "thank you" video for staff members consisting of photos taken in their homes.

Oppelt is not worried about her children — one of whom has daily video conferencing — sliding academically: "I think that this time will build more creativity and free thinking than at any other time in our history," she said.

State response

On April 27, MDE launched webinars to support educators in distance learning. Walz set aside two statewide professional development days by executive order. This is an "unprecedented time," Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said Thursday, and the department felt educators could use some help reassessing their approach to engagement and teaching.

"Relationships have been put to the test during distance learning," she said.

In St. Louis Park, it has been all hands on deck when it comes to checking in on students. Bus drivers at Peter Hobart Elementary who deliver bag lunches to homes have reported back to educators about their interactions with families via a shared spreadsheet, according to a webinar hosted for MDE by the BARR Center.

Across the district border in Minneapolis, Kamini LaRusso, a violin teacher who has two children in the district and who responded to the Star Tribune survey, said communication has improved each week. She has a son who attends kindergarten at Armatage Montessori, and his teacher is "just knocking it out of the park," she said.

"I think it all comes down to connecting, and the teachers are doing a fine job of that," LaRusso said.