The Star Tribune asked parents of Minnesota’s K-12 students to weigh in about how online learning has been going. Parents of about 525 public and private school students, spanning all grades, responded from April 17 to April 24.
The answers show that some students are thriving and some are not. But the majority said things are going OK.
Comments from parents ranged from intense enthusiasm and gratitude for what teachers have done to immense frustration about the extra workload they’ve taken on.
Half of the kids said that overall, online learning is going well or that they are thriving. That share was a little lower among lower elementary school kids, though.
A parent of a second-grader said his child “thinks this is summer vacation without playing with his friends.” The parent noted that he and his wife take turns trying to make sure he stays focused but that it has been really hard for their son.
On the other end of the spectrum, a parent of a third-grader said they “are very, very lucky” because their child’s teacher spends three hours every day engaging the class in a Google Meet. “He does many activities where the class learns together; it’s not completing worksheets and handing them in. He checks in with them individually.”
The parent of a 12th-grader said it hasn’t been going well and noted: “This is unprecedented in recent history, and schools were caught off-guard. It’s very hard to make the adjustment in the middle of the year.”
Video conferencing
The most distinctive finding is that students who have live video conferencing available to them on a daily or somewhat regular basis were far more likely to say the online learning is going well.
“Live interaction is key,” wrote one parent of a second- grader.
Overall, about 30% of the students either didn’t have any live video conferencing or it was optional or had only occurred at the beginning, and this holds true across grade levels.
“I think hearing their teachers’ voices/faces in videos for the class is very helpful and reassuring. And makes them remember their teachers fondly,” wrote the parent of a 6th-grader.
 Many of those who said their kids’ teachers aren’t using live video conferencing listed that as something that could be improved.
“They should be using technology to actually teach and provide content rather than just posting PowerPoint slides for the kids to read,” wrote one parent of a sixth-grader.
The parent of a seventh-grader said: “All lessons are written, primarily Google Slides. Zero teacher interaction so far. This misses a lot of learning styles.”
Amount of time
On average, parents said their students spend about three hours per day on school work, but that amount of time is lowest among the K-2 students and highest at the high school level.
Nearly 20% of high school students reported spending more than five hours per day on their work — twice the share of middle schoolers or upper elementary school students.
About 60% of survey respondents said the amount of work required is “about right” and a similar percentage also said it was “challenging enough.”
In the comments, some parents elaborated.
“They’re keeping it real by not overwhelming the kids,” said the parent of a 10th-grader.
The parent of a fourth-grader said the workload is “pretty light” and noted: “My son wakes up at 9:45, logs in at 10 a.m., then is done by noon and then will go play Fortnite until we take away his phone.”
The parent of a kindergartner said: “20 minutes a day of activities is only barely better than nothing. Moreover, there is no specialization in what is offered — it is geared to the lowest level learning, so all students at the slightly-below average to above-average level are not being challenged at all. We’ve had to put in significant time and resources to find other activities to occupy our child while we both need to continue to work full time, and during traditional business hours.”
Devices and technology
About 60% of students were given a device by their school — about half were laptops, while half were tablets. The majority of those who didn’t get a device were in elementary grades.
Nearly 40% reported having regular or occasional problems with the technology or learning platform being used by the school. Another 19% said they had problems, but only in the beginning.
A few noted that tablets are not ideal devices.
“Unfortunately, learning on an iPad is about the worst way I could imagine my 1st grade son ‘going to school.’ The iPad activates the impulsive, impatient part of his brain that simply cannot be conducive to learning. I could not manufacture a worse way for him to learn if I tried,” one parent wrote.
And some asked for more off-line learning.
“I would like more off-line activities so they can practice handwriting and other manual dexterity skills,” wrote the parent of a third-grader.”
Some parents commented that it was obvious the teachers were struggling with the technology, others said their child’s school was using technology that had been in place well before the pandemic and that clearly made the transition easier.
Only a small share reported having regular or occasional problems with their home internet.
One parent, with three kids in elementary, middle and high school and two working parents at home, wrote: “I asked for help from our school’s IT department only to be met with an email telling me that it sounds like we have too many devices on the network and could we get some of them off. Uh, no! Two of us are trying to work, and the other three are trying to do e-learning.”
We didn’t ask a direct question about the workload for parents, but many commented on that in a section where we asked for ideas about what could be done differently.
“Most 7-year-olds are not self-motivating or self-sufficient enough to manage the work themselves. They require pretty constant attention to work through each assignment, which is incredibly challenging for two working parents. This is not the school’s fault but a significant limitation of distance learning,” wrote the parent of a first-grader.
'Doing their best'
In a section of the survey asking what is going well, numerous parents offered praise for the teachers and administrators.
Lots of comments sounded similar to this one from the parent of a kindergartner: “They truly and deeply care and are doing their best.”
The parent of a first-grader noted: “I’m really impressed with what our teachers have been able to put together in a short amount of time. Of course, it’s not ideal, and my son really misses the social aspects of school.”
One parent mentioned a librarian helping her child with a history day project. Another said a teacher posted learning videos as different Snapchat characters that were very funny.
Another said a teacher does “dance into the weekend” calls where the kids get to dress up and be silly. “A good way to kick off the weekend during these unique times,” the parent wrote.
Parents who said online learning was going very well were more likely to comment that teachers were communicating well with both students and parents.
The parent of a fifth-grader praised her child’s teacher for “taking time to check in every day, reassuring parents that if there are tears or melt downs, to step back. It’s ok if something isn’t finished, they’ll fix it next year and to focus on their safety and mental health.