March 25, 2020

MN Education During COVID-19: Legislative Action Coming

By Krista Kaput

After going on hiatus March 17, legislators announced they will reconvene for one day. On Thursday, March 26 they will work through a series of COVID-19 response bills, including on education. According to House Speaker Melissa Hortman, “informal working groups, which mirror existing committee structure,” have been developing draft bills since March 19. Unfortunately, this work happened out of the public eye. Here we try to shed some light on what’s being proposed in a comprehensive education bill.

While a discussion on pay for district and charter school employees, including hourly school workers and contract workers, is scheduled for the legislative convening, it’s unclear whether the larger education proposal will make the agenda—since some details are still in negotiation with the Senate. But we want to share what we know so far. This is particularly important given that provisions in this bill will ultimately become law, with far less opportunity for public comment and input than usual.

The bill contains several helpful provisions that would provide clarity and flexibility for districts, charter schools, state agencies, and teacher preparation programs. There are also many things the bill does not address, signaling that some things will be left to figure out at the district level—unless additional legislation comes forward. Read on for our recap and reflections.

Teacher Preparation and Licensure 

Operations at the state’s teacher preparation and licensing agency, Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board (PELSB), are also impacted by COVID-19. To hold teachers and hiring districts harmless, the proposal would temporarily waive some requirements for teacher preparation programs and providers, as well as teacher licensure applicants. While there is ambiguity around what this could mean, the bill specifies a few things:

  • Some preparation requirements waived. Teacher preparation programs would be permitted to award credit and certify that a teacher candidate has completed student teaching, field experiences, and related assessments that were interrupted or canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak during the 2019-20 academic year—essentially resulting in a one-time waiver of these requirements.
  • Teacher licensure renewal extension. The proposal gives currently licensed teachers a six-month extension to renew their 2020-21 licenses. This would ensure an additional six months to complete cultural competency training, mentorships, and required exams for teachers who would otherwise need to complete these requirements before they renew their licenses for next year.
Waiving Credit, Assessment, and Other Student Requirements

Currently, students have to complete certain requirements before they can advance to the next grade level or graduate. Given the new normal, the bill allows the commissioner of education to waive some of those requirements for the 2019-20 academic year including:

  • Minimum annual instructional hours (currently 935 for elementary and 1020 for middle and high school);
  • Required credits, including credits for advancing to the next grade;
  • State graduation requirements; and
  • Annual standards-based assessments (the MCAs) and in-school administration of college entrance exams.

Before granting waivers, the bill would require the commissioner to consider “the quality of the continuity of education and the mastery of academic standards, with provisions for students to demonstrate the potential toward grade advancement and graduation.” The commissioner must also consult with school board representatives from throughout the state. Furthermore, the commissioner must report back to the Legislature by January 1, 2021, on all of the waivers that were granted.

As these waivers roll out, there will be many important questions to address—from how to support students who are transitioning into postsecondary education, to how we make up for lost learning, to how we measure progress—that will need to be answered in the coming months.

Average Daily Membership and Truancy 

Normally, students are automatically withdrawn after 15 consecutive days of absence. The proposal would prevent this from happening as a result of COVID-related absences, and also specify that the commissioner may waive any requirements related to truancy.

School Aid Formulas 

To ensure revenue does not fall below amounts estimated for the 2019-20 school year, the commissioner of education would have the authority to recalculate the formulas for special education, school meals, career and technical education, nonpublic pupil transportation aid, interdistrict desegregation transportation aid, adult basic education aid, and school employees for the current school year. The commissioner would have to tell districts and charter schools about the changes to these formulas “as soon as practicable.” Furthermore, the commissioner would have to report the changes and their impacts to the Legislature by January 15, 2021.

What’s Missing?

While this bill makes some important policy changes to adjust to student and educator needs, it only represents a first step. From conversations we have had with educators, students, families, and other advocacy organizations, we know there are many more areas of concern that policymakers must address to ensure that all students, particularly our most underserved, are receiving a rigorous and engaging education in this new reality.

Some critical questions will need to be resolved as schools throughout the state launch into distance learning from March 30 through May 4. First, we must ensure a clear solution for the 17% of Minnesota students, particularly low-income and rural students, who do not have access to the internet, as well as countless other students who are without access to devices, technology, and other resources to implement quality home-based learning plans. Schools are being creative and resourceful, like by adding mobile hotspots and delivering available devices to many of the students who need them. But in some cases, the need is greater than schools can address, and the state will need to step up and provide funding or resources, especially in our neediest communities.

Accommodations for students who are deaf and hard of hearing is another emerging concern. For example, we have been told that Zoom captioning does not work unless there is someone assigned to add the captions live. While the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) provided an external resource about supporting students who are deaf and hard of hearing, this is a group of students and educators that the state should provide guidance and support around.

Similarly, students with special needs and English Learners must be a top priority, as they are often the most vulnerable and forgotten about populations during crises like these. Families are concerned and educators are wondering how these students will receive accommodations. While MDE has provided some guidance, families would like more information on how MDE is going to ensure schools are meeting their ethical and legal obligations in providing for these students.

What’s Next? 

First and foremost, if you have reactions, questions, or comments, we encourage you to weigh in with legislators. You can find more detail on the latest updates from the House and a link to their official COVID-19 comment form here.

And if you have thoughts on what your student, school, or community needs, we hope you’ll share it with us here. We’ve launched a community-wide survey to inform our advocacy work, and are eager to hear from you.