The state’s public K-12 schools will stay closed for the rest of the academic year under an order from Gov. Tim Walz, an unprecedented step many states across the nation are taking to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
The order, issued Thursday, assures that students and teachers will finish out the school year through distance-learning plans that have been underway for weeks, and it gives some finality for high school seniors across the state who wondered if they’d get to walk in their graduation ceremonies.
The significance of those milestones was not lost on Walz, a former geography teacher, who told students and educators: “I know what you’re losing.”
“There’s no joy in this,” he said. “The class of 2020, you will not be defined by staying home and missing proms and missing graduations, you will be defined by understanding how interconnected our world is and what it means to come together and solve hard problems.”
The state’s schools have been closed to nearly 900,000 K-12 public and charter school students since March 18, an order the governor previously extended until at least May 4. His decision ends weeks of speculation about whether students would be heading back to their classrooms at any point this spring.
Some states, including Washington and Maryland, are already considering closures into the summer and fall, but Walz said he hasn’t made a decision yet about what’s next.
“There are game changers that go both ways on this,” he said.
Epidemiological evidence shows that, while children can contract COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, they typically experience mild symptoms. But children can spread the virus to their parents or teachers, which triggered school closures starting in March. Health officials have warned of a potential second wave of COVID-19 cases this winter that could be worse because it coincides with flu season.
Walz’s move was accepted as inevitable by educators who at the same time remain concerned about inequities in distance learning.
“We need to be honest about what this decision means,” said Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the state’s largest teachers union. “Distance learning is putting incredible stress on parents, students and educators. It’s widening disparities by wealth, race and geography.”
In rural districts, teachers and students have been struggling with lack of broadband access. Noel Schmidt, superintendent of the Virginia Minnesota Public Schools, said the district has delivered hot spots to one in every 17 students and made it possible for students and families to drive to its schools to access Wi-Fi. Still, even with a 1:1 technology program providing devices to all, Virginia has seen about 5% of students struggle to get engaged.
St. Paul Public Schools also is a 1:1 district, and as of this week, 93% of students have used their iPads, Kevin Burns, a district spokesman, said Thursday. But the district still hadn’t heard from 110 students by Monday. Project REACH, a district shelter and street-based program, is working to track down those who might be homeless.
“There’s no coasting, in other words,” Burns said.
The governor’s initial school closure order required schools to continue mental health services for students and deliver meals for children in need.
In the midst of the pandemic, potential changes in how student performance is assessed has become a hot topic among teachers. Minnesota has been granted a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education to cancel federally mandated standardized testing, but some parents have also advocated for schools to drop certain elective courses and focus on core classes like science, math and English.
Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker cautioned schools against making broad decisions about eliminating some classes.
“The one thing keeping a student connected to a school community may be that subject area that someone else is advocating to thin out,” she said.
At the Capitol, legislators in both parties supported the move to close down schools during the pandemic, but they said the decision puts more pressure on lawmakers to address the unintended consequences.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said he’s worried shortfalls in distance learning are worsening the state’s achievement gap. “I’m very concerned that our kids of color are falling farther behind as a result of distance learning,” he said. “That’s something we’re going to have to address.”
Legislators are also debating a proposal to require districts to pay hourly school workers, including bus drivers and food service employees, who have lost wages due to school closures during the pandemic.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said the order means they need to strike a deal and pass the proposal “immediately.”
“Our teachers and hourly school employees have never been more important to our children and families,” she said. “They deserve economic security and our support — especially during these difficult times.”
Staff reporters Anthony Lonetree and Torey Van Oot contributed to this report.