Heather Mueller's first assignment as Minnesota's top education official will be a big one: steering the state's more than 500 public districts and charter schools through the end of this pandemic school year.

But it's a role Mueller, currently the state's deputy education commissioner, already knows well. Mueller has been the department's point person on the COVID-19 pandemic from the beginning. She's met regularly with other state leaders and navigated a sea of competing pressures from parents, business leaders, teachers unions, politicians and others with strong opinions about whether school buildings should be open in the pandemic.

Now, the longtime Mankato teacher and administrator will take on even more responsibilities, as she moves up to fill Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker's recently vacated seat. Ricker, appointed by Gov. Tim Walz at the start of his term, resigned earlier this month, saying she wants to return to classroom teaching.

Mueller, who will formally become the state's education commissioner April 1, said she's eager to keep working on her department's pandemic response, as well as broader challenges like the state's persistent achievement gaps. In an interview with the Star Tribune, Mueller said one of her immediate priorities is helping to ensure schools have the funding necessary to offer expanded summer programs after this disrupted school year. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What is your top priority as commissioner?

A: The very first priority, especially because we're in a global pandemic, is the safety, the health and the well-being of our students, hands down. We need to make sure that everyone is safe and healthy and well. We have safe-learning plans that started from that lens, and really ensured that we had a system and structure that helped create an environment in which students could be safe and healthy and well in the pandemic. And our second priority was to prioritize in-person learning as much as possible.

Q: How has the pandemic shaped your ideas for the Department of Education?

A: When people think about education and the education system in general, they sometimes think or have the impression that it's a really slow to change, slow to adapt system. But what we were able to see at the beginning of the pandemic is that that's not true. We are one of the only industries in the world that had eight days to completely change the way we do our work and provide support to students. So not just how we educated our students, but how they receive their meals, how they have access to mental health supports, how we provided technology, access to the internet, set up school-age care programs for our essential workers. All of that really happened in an eight-day span. What that moment really solidified for me is that there is more hope now than ever before that we can create big, systemic changes that close our gaps and our disparities, and we can give each and every student, every single day, a world-class education.

Q: What's an example of a big change that could move faster?

A: One example is distance learning … What we learned is our educators are incredibly skilled at what they do, and they can build those relationships. It's not the same [as in-person instruction], but I think this gave us an opportunity to wade into the waters — probably to the deep end, quite frankly — but it allows us to now recognize ways we can do that differently. And there are some students who did have a better school experience, for a variety of reasons, for their own personal reasons and personal health, they did have a better experience.

That's one example where we've been able to learn about something in the process, and we're going to get better at it.

Q: What do you think has gone well in Minnesota schools during the pandemic?

A: What has gone well is the ability for our school systems to adapt and be flexible. It wasn't perfect. But they certainly did their changes with purpose, and with a focus on our students, with a real thoughtfulness that really solidified the role of educators and education in communities and on behalf of our students. And we're also really proud of the vaccine and the testing rollout, the ability to prioritize our educators and to move as quickly as possible to maintaining that No. 1 goal of keeping our students and families and staff safe, healthy and well, and providing as much in-person learning as possible.

Q: What could have gone better?

A: I do wish we would have gotten more support from the federal government in the beginning, so we could have maybe contained the virus sooner, and maybe our students wouldn't have been robbed of some of the experiences. As a mom of a senior in high school, I've seen that firsthand.

Erin Golden • 612-673-4790