August 3, 2020

10 Things All MN Schools Must Do Next School Year, No Matter Their Model

By Krista Kaput

Last week, Governor Walz announced a framework for back-to-school that will lead to a mix of delivery models across the state and a phased approach that could result in changing student experiences over the course of the year. While many of the decisions about the 2020-21 school year will be made at the district level, there are 10 key things all schools must do—no matter the model—to ensure students receive the best education possible. 

1. Make Sure Every Student is Online and Has a Device

The Governor’s framework means that many Minnesota students will be online for at least part of the yearwhether that’s part of a hybrid model, temporary school closures, or full-time distance learning. Ensuring internet and device access should be a top priority so that no student falls behind due to preventable technical barriers. 

In Minnesota, 17% of students—particularly low-income and rural—did not have access to the internet when COVID-19 hit. Large numbers of students also did not have a device. Districts worked hard to address this, but nonetheless, 7% of families still reported that access to the internet and devices was a barrier, with disparities across lines of race and ethnicity. This is a major equity issue, and fully closing the digital divide should be a non-negotiable priority.

2. Identify Each Student’s Learning Needs 

Students will return to school this fall having lost between one-third to half of what they would have learned in a normal school year. Given this, it’s imperative that all schools measure where each student’s at—communicating areas for catch-up and growth to students and families, and using findings to inform teaching, tutoring, and additional supports. Some districts across the country are identifying and implementing simple diagnostic assessments to accomplish this early in the school year, and it will be a critical foundation for getting back on track. 

3. Address Learning Loss with Targeted Interventions 

Research-based interventions have been shown to accelerate learning in math and reading. Schools should seek to implement such practices. For example:

  • High-dosage tutoring that is directly tied to classroom content; 
  • Extended learning time inventions, including acceleration academies and double-dose math structures; and 
  • Strong data systems for monitoring early student warning signs coupled with strong norms and routines.
4. Prioritize Strong Student-Teacher Relationships

When students come back to school, nothing will be the same. Not only will the model and delivery of education be different, but they will have different teachers and adults who are supporting them. Educators must spend the first weeks of school building one-on-one relationships and creating communities where students feel safe, known, cared for, and respected. This is particularly important as students, and particularly students of color and Indigenous students, continue to navigate trauma not only in the wake of COVID-19, but also the murder of George Floyd and the spotlight it’s placed on systemic racism. 

5. Support Social-Emotional Needs 

Minnesota students have faced disruption in many areas of their lives, and nearly two-thirds of students have indicated a decline in their mental health due to the pandemic. It’s vital that, in addition to supporting students academically, schools are also addressing social-emotional and mental health needs.

Schools must make guidance counselors, social workers, and other mental health supports accessible, and should also provide training for teachers on how to support social-emotional needs when not in the classroom full-time. Some schools are considering looping teachers—that is, assigning the same teacher to the same group of students for two consecutive grades—to provide students with some stability. 

6. Clear, Collaborative Communication with Families

This is going to be a stressful and confusing school year for families as they navigate distance learning, complex hybrid schedules, and patchwork support systems that look very different from what they are accustomed to. Leaders at all levels should make it a top priority to ensure clear, accessible communication at every step along the way—avoiding complex Powerpoints, dense emails, and modes of communication that might miss certain families. 

In the spring, about 60% of distance learning plans described some type of support—like how-to videos, FAQs, checklists, phone calls—to help parents as they transition to and implement distance learning in their home. However, only 24% translated their plans into languages other than English. Schools must make meaningful, accessible, translated guidance a priority. 

7. Ensure Comparable Rigor Across Schooling Models 

Last spring, distance learning happened very quickly. Educators and families made the best of a crisis, but many key practices that support learning and ensure a strong feedback loop between teachers and families fell by the wayside. This fall, all school plans must clearly state how they will do the following: 

  • Teach New Content: While it will be important to address learning loss and gaps in knowledge, it’s also important for teachers to teach new, grade-level academic content. Research found that even when students started behind grade level, they closed gaps with their peers after six months with access to stronger instruction. 
  • Provide Live Instruction and Office Hours: Teaching content in real-time leads to enhanced learning, student-centered instruction, and more timely formative feedback. Office hours where students can ask questions and get one-on-one support can supplement this.
  • Provide Feedback on Assignments: Tracking student progress by collecting assignments, and assessing students’ progress toward academic benchmarks or grading will help students stay on track during distance learning.
8. Build Tailored Programming for Special Education Students and English Learners 

For some students, the lack of regular, in-person education services creates unique barriers. Students receiving special education and English Learner services received some tailored supports during distance learning this spring, but this varied from district to district and still left significant gaps. Schools must build clear plans to ensure that students receive the services that they are entitled to, as well as how they will work with families to deliver accommodations. Districts should give these students priority access to any in-person services, considering research-backed strategies like small-group or one-to-one intervention three to five times per week. 

9. Remember that One Size Won’t Fit All

Many families are hesitant to return to school, while the COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing. This is particularly true for families of color and Indigenous families who have been most vulnerable to the virus. From an equity lens, it is imperative that districts provide excellent distance learning and hybrid throughout the year, making them a top priority rather than an afterthought.

On the flip side, while distance and hybrid learning provide the greatest protection against the risks of COVID-19, they introduce different risks for families who cannot provide care for young students while they work. For these families, districts must ensure safe care options for students in settings where distance learning can be effectively proctored and supported. 

10. Demand that Education be a Policy Priority

For too long, the issues facing studentsparticularly those who have been traditionally underservedhaven’t been at the center of public debate around education. If schools are going to meet the challenges they will face in the coming months and years, state and federal policymakers must step up to provide flexibility, additional funding, and guidance on key program and policy questions. And parents, educators, students, and advocates must demand it.