April 28, 2020

Minnesota Distance Learning Plans by the Numbers

By Krista Kaput

Last week, Governor Walz announced Minnesota school buildings will remain closed for the rest of the school year, elevating the importance of strong, equitable plans for distance learning. To get a better understanding of how schools around the state are approaching this new reality, EdAllies analyzed the distance learning plans of 61 Minnesota districts and 30 charter schools, honing in on those with the largest low-income student populations. 

By analyzing innovative approaches across the state, we hope our findings help families, policymakers, students, and educators to get a better understanding of how Minnesota schools are: 

  • Meeting the needs of students with special needs and English Learners;
  • Supporting their students and families with getting internet and devices; 
  • Interacting and fostering relationships with students; 
  • Providing continuity and rigor in learning; 
  • Supporting social-emotional needs and mental health; and more. 

Here we provide an overview of trends we found in our initial analysis. We know that many districts continue to modify and improve their approach, and moreover, that it would be impossible to capture the nuances of how each plan is rolling out in practice. Our goal is to elevate emerging best practices and begin to identify areas for improvement. We will update the database as we hear about district plan updates, but here we capture a starting point that we hope can inform conversations about distance learning in Minnesota. 

Plan Availability and Accessibility 

Of the 91 districts and charter schools we examined, 87 of them had a distance learning plan posted on their website. Of those, 53 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. 

With that said, only 19 of the plans were translated into languages other than English, which creates accessibility barriers for families whose first language is not English. 

Getting Internet and Devices to Students 

In Minnesota, 17% of students, particularly low-income and rural, do not have access to the internet. Large numbers of students either do not have a device or live in a household that doesn’t have enough devices for all of their children. The House and Senate are still negotiating their COVID-19 education bill—which includes a provision that would help expand access—so districts have been left on their own to support their students and families. From our analysis we found 39 aim to ensure all students receive a device like an iPad or Chromebook and 14 will provide a device for some grade bands

With regard to helping families secure internet access, 11 plans indicated they will help families secure a hotspot, and 37 provided a list of free or affordable internet options for families. 

About a fourth of the plans either did not address internet or device access at all, with some districts not implementing online plans for distance learning, instead relying on packets and other resources. Given that school buildings are closed for the remainder of the academic year, working to increase access to devices, internet, and at least some level of online instruction and programming is critical. 

Students with Special Needs and English Learners 

From our community survey and conversations with students, families, and educators, two of the biggest concerns that we’ve heard about distance learning are ensuring that students with special needs and English Learners (ELs) are receiving appropriate services and accommodations. From our analysis, we found that this was a strong point of the plans, with 74 explaining how they would meet the needs of their students with special needs, and 57 describing how they would support ELs. 

However, there was a wide variation in the amount of detail that the plans gave about the supports they would provide. Some districts offer only general language, while others provide more detail.  For example, Rochester Public School District describes how their English Language teachers will host weekly conferences with EL students on their caseloads, will have ongoing conversations with families, the technology they will use to support EL students, and how they will collaborate with general education teachers. 

Supporting Academic Growth

Recent projections indicate that students, and particularly those most underserved, are going to experience drastic learning loss related to COVID-19 school closures. Given this, it’s important for schools to ensure that students are learning new content and receiving feedback on their work. 

From our analysis, we found that only about a third of distance learning plans specified that students would be learning new content. For example, Farmington Public School District’s plan specifies “Learning will be delivered in a 3-day rotation, with two days of delivery of new learning opportunities and a day of check-in with staff and work completion to provide flexibility for students and family.” 

We also found that about a third of the plans indicated that students would receive feedback on assignments. For example, in Shakopee Public School District teachers are expected to provide feedback to students at least two times a week. And at College Preparatory Elementary, teachers will give weekly feedback on learning and progress so the students can reflect on their own learning. 

Meeting Student’s Social-Emotional Needs

Minnesota students have faced disruption in many areas of their lives. It’s vital that, in addition to supporting students academically, schools are also addressing the social-emotional and mental health needs of their students. From our analysis, this was a stronger aspect of the distance learning plans, with 54 plans indicating they would provide access to mental health services and 47 specifying that students would have access to counselors. Now that schools have been closed for the rest of the year, it is even more important that schools work to address this in the interim, and not simply wait until students return.

What’s Next?

Over the next few weeks, EdAllies will be tracking distance learning plans, given likely revisions to build on learning so far and address the longer-term challenge ahead. We will also continue to uplift innovative and student-centered practices that other districts and charter schools could learn from and adopt. If you have a story you’d like to share about your own distance learning experience, consider applying to contribute to our new Education at a Distance blog series.