ROCHESTER, Minn. — Chris Jourdain, vice chairman of Red Lake Nation’s school board, was at a basketball tournament in the Twin Cities when the impact of the pandemic started to sink in. Throughout the course of the game, it became increasingly clear that things were about to change.
First, he was informed that the next game in the tournament was probably going to be open to parents only. Then he was informed that the next game was going to be canceled altogether.
By the end of the match, the rest of the tournament had been scratched.
Instead of using the state tournament as a moment to celebrate collectively as a tribe, as they often would, the fans who had driven four hours from the far reaches of northern Minnesota simply packed up and left.
“After the game and it was all over, we just came right home,” Jourdain said. “It would have been a great time. We’ve had a lot of success in basketball the past few years. That was kind of our spring thing. The majority of the reservation would follow them down there. You’d see us all over the Twin Cities, and it was a good time.”
That was in March when the reality of the situation was just starting to sink in for everyone. That was the month when the governors in Minnesota and the Dakotas ordered schools to close because of the threat of the coronavirus.
A lot has changed since then. Graduating seniors received diplomas in drive-thru ceremonies. Terms such as “hybrid” and “distance learning” became part of the educational routine. Students of all ages attended classes at their kitchen tables and bedroom desks.
The situation has extended far longer than most people would have liked. So, the question remains: Months into the pandemic, what is the impact on education, and what does it mean for the future?
Performance and morale
In some cases, it’s hard to get a grasp on what impact the pandemic has had on the world of K-12 education. Anecdotally, many students and parents will share their struggles with hybrid and distance learning.
Parents have found themselves juggling their work responsibilities and the needs of their children’s education. Students have had to deal with the emotional loss of being away from their routines and social structures.
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Students at Mayo High School in Rochester, Minn., chronicled the emotions they were experiencing in the school’s yearbook.
“COVID-19 has taken away some of the moments that I have looked forward to for most of my life,” Sophie Iezzi, a 2020 Mayo High School senior, told the yearbook staff this spring. “I miss the little things, even like exchanging smiles with people in the halls.”
In spite of those personal stories, the degree to which the pandemic has affected student performance and morale is not yet fully known. Ashleigh Norris, assistant director of communications for the Minnesota Department of Education, said the state won’t publish information about the 2019-20 high school dropout rate until this coming spring. Right now, they aren’t able to say whether the pandemic caused more students than normal to drop out of school.
Norris also said there isn’t state-level data showing whether or not there has been a decrease in academic progress attributable to the pandemic.
Toll on students, teachers, districts
Even though the overall loss of learning is hard to calculate, at least in Minnesota, individual schools will tell you they’ve seen families leave for alternative solutions. In other words, multiple schools have seen their enrollment drop as parents look to options such private schools or home education.
Austin Public Schools in southern Minnesota saw a drop of nearly 200 students since the year before. A drop in students puts schools in even harder positions than they were already in since school funding is largely tied to enrollment numbers.
"It's well over a $2 million impact on our budget," said David Krenz, superintendent of Austin Public Schools. "When you build a budget where you anticipate a little bit of growth and then you see a large decrease, that hurts."
Norris said the Department of Education is not yet able to say whether there has been an overall drop in enrollment throughout the state.
The pandemic also has taken a toll on teachers. Education Minnesota, a statewide teachers union, published the results from a teacher survey this fall. The survey showed a high level of frustration and anxiety. The data showed that nearly 30% of teachers were thinking about retiring or leaving the profession.
Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, said it was alarming to see such levels of fatigue at the beginning of the year rather than later on. She said the situation has not improved since then either.
“It’s still at an all-time high,” she said.
Life-long impacts possible
North Dakota has been a little better than Minnesota about tracking the status of its students in relation to the pandemic. From the fall of 2019 to the fall of 2020, there was a 27-28% drop in students who were at grade-level in reading, writing and math.
Whether students will be able to make up the ground they lost or if it could create a permanent disadvantage for some students who already struggled is yet unknown.
The Journal of the American Medical Association published a paper in November, discussing whether school closures could have contributed to a decrease in years of life, due to the connection between “school disruption” and lower life expectancy. The paper found that “missed instruction during 2020 could be associated with an estimated 5.53 million years of life lost.”
The impact is most likely affecting some groups more severely than others. According to the paper, schools serving “predominantly Black and Hispanic students reported that only 60% to 70% were participating in remote education on a regular basis, and only one-third were participating daily.”
“The results of this decision analytical model suggest that the attempt to save lives by closing schools may not have resulted in a net savings when considering the potential harms associated with this intervention,” the paper said.
North Dakota Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler says that's something she worries about a lot.
“I feel that the nation, and North Dakota included, is on the edge of a cliff of a national crisis,” Baesler said. “If we don’t start paying more attention to getting our students the resources that they need, we will only have a compounding problem.”
There have been plenty of efforts to mitigate the pandemic’s effects on the educational system. The federal government has allowed school districts to offer free meals throughout the rest of the year. School districts have created pick-up locations where students and parents can come to collect a bagged meal for the day, and sometimes even a breakfast for the next morning.
For students at the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School in northern Minnesota’s Leech Lake Reservation, the pandemic actually provided an opportunity to connect many students and families to the internet who did not have access to it beforehand.
“That would not have happened without COVID,” said Jay Malchow, a counselor at the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School.
There have been similar efforts throughout the state. In March an internet provider was making access free to families for two months. School districts have turned their parking lots into hot spots for those who don’t have access at home.
School districts also have spent relief funding, making sure that students have the technology they need in order to be able to participate in distance learning.
North Dakota has been making efforts to help students make up any progress they may have lost during the pandemic. Baesler said the state is purchasing a “precision-learning tool.” Called “North Dakota Exact Path,” the program takes a student’s test scores and creates a way to start the student exactly where they are in the core subject areas. The tool will be open to school districts throughout the state.
“If they get them started on this, they won’t miss a beat,” Baesler said.
Sometimes, the solutions have had to come at the grassroots level, such as in Worthington, a small city in southwest Minnesota. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the community is more than 40% Hispanic, more than 10% Asian and more than 6% African-American. Many of the city's residents are immigrants, who do not necessarily have a strong understanding of the educational system in the first place, much less during a pandemic.
Nathalie Nkashama is an immigrant from the Congo in Africa. She works hard to help connect immigrants in the community to resources like tutoring or other things they may need.
She operates a grocery food truck. She said that food is her way of bridging people in the community.
"As an immigrant, you have to understand: many people don't understand the school system here, even if you're educated," Nkashama said. "Being faced with an iPad, where do you go if you don't know how to read?"
With vaccinations starting to roll out throughout the country, things are looking more optimistic than anything else in what has come to be a grueling year. However, does that mean students will be able to return to the classrooms soon?
Tim Lutz is the superintendent of Bemidji Public Schools in northwest Minnesota. He said he’s wondered if students and teachers will even be able to return to normal by the fall of 2021, much less the spring of 2021.
Part of the problem is the time it will take to roll out the vaccine for everyone to attend school safely. Another part of the challenge, he said, will be convincing people to trust the vaccine once they have access to it.
Eventually, though, schools will return to a routine schedule. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean school will look the same as it did before the pandemic. Rather, some school officials view the pandemic as a hurricane that has forced them to look at education differently.
Specht, the president of Education Minnesota, is one of them.
“I hope we never go back to normal because normal wasn’t serving all of our students very well,” Specht said. “If we just think we can forget about those inequities and go back to what we were doing, I think that that is almost criminal. We have got to use this opportunity to reset.”
Rochester Public Schools Superintendent Michael Muñoz spoke of that in the spring when distance learning was more of a new concept. He said schools may realize that students don’t have to have the same amount of traditional “seat time” they once were expected to endure.
Baesler also feels strongly about the possibilities the pandemic has presented to educators. Like Specht, she went so far as to say that she hopes schools don’t return to the way things were before the pandemic.
“I think we were talking about it in increments; we were kind of tweaking around the edges of some of these conversations,” Baesler said. “And (now), we’ve ripped the Band-Aid off; we’ve absolutely ripped the Band-Aid off.”
This story is part of a 13-day series that looks at all the ways 2020 has changed us. From now until 2021, expect stories on workplace and education, sports, economics, politics and everything in between.