October 29, 2020

Minnesota Fall Learning Plans By the Numbers 

By Krista Kaput

Since the sudden shift to distance learning this spring, we’ve been tracking how Minnesota schools are responding, taking a bird’s eye look at district and school learning plans across the state. 

Earlier this year, our Distance Learning by the Numbers brief offered a snapshot of what happened with distance learning in the spring and how we could build on best practices to provide students with the best education possible. Now, we’re taking another look to see how schools and districts across Minnesota planned for the fall. We looked at the fall learning plans of 85 districts and charter schools, honing in on those that serve the largest number of low-income students. However, only 76 had publicly available plans.

The bottom line: While we have seen some improvements in how districts and charter schools are providing education during the pandemic, there are still many areas for growth—particularly for students receiving special education services and English Learners. Below, we highlight the trends we’re seeing, and in future posts, we’ll share more about best practices districts should still work to adopt in order to provide students with a rigorous and engaging education. 

Distance, Hybrid, or In-Person?

In July, Governor Walz provided guidance on how districts should plan for re-opening based on their county’s COVID-19 numbers. While models continue to change as the pandemic (and district preparedness) evolves, about one-third of the available learning plans indicated that the district would start in full distance learning. About one-fifth started with a mixed approach: elementary learners in-person or hybrid, but middle and high school learners starting with distance learning. Another 41% started in a hybrid model for all, with only 4% starting in-person.

Progress on Internet and Devices

While districts have made significant efforts to close the digital divide, coverage is still far from universal. Reliable internet and having enough devices for each student are still barriers for many students. Only two-thirds of the plans indicated that either all students have received a device like an iPad or Chromebook or that they would provide a device to a family in need. Moreover, just half of the plans indicated they will help families secure internet access (like through a hotspot). One-fourth of the plans either did not address internet or device access at all, Given the vast majority of the districts are doing some type of distance learning—either full-time or through hybrid learning—it is critical that all students have access to a device and the internet. 

Students Receiving Special Education Services and English Learners 

A continued concern with education under COVID-19 is how the needs of English Learners (ELs) and students receiving special education services will be met. While this was a strong point of the spring plans, there is much to be desired from the fall learning plans. Only 40% of plans explained how they would meet the needs of their students receiving special education services and about one-fourth described how they would support ELs. What we found was that many districts indicated that students receiving special education services or ELs would continue to receive accommodations, but provided no details about how those accommodations would be met. 

Of those that provided details, there was significant variation in quality. On the stronger side, Worthington Public Schools specified the transportation services, how annual IEP meetings would be conducted, how services would be documented, and how families would be contacted by their child’s case manager. Many other plans failed to address these types of specifics.

Measuring and Addressing Learning Loss 

Recent projections indicate that students, particularly those most underserved, experienced drastic learning loss due to COVID-19 school closures. Expert after expert has recommended administering diagnostic assessments aligned to state academic standards to gauge where students are and then use the data to map out the appropriate interventions and strategies to accelerate learning. 

However, virtually none of the learning plans addressed assessing individual student’s needs and developing appropriate interventions. Only 2 plans mentioned diagnostic assessments, and only 4 mentioned addressing learning loss—even in those cases, in vague terms. One positive example was Northeast College Prep, who administered the i-Ready, a nationally-normed diagnostic assessment that informed families and teachers about the student’s math level and created an individualized learning plan based on that data. 

The absence of diagnostic assessments to measure learning loss and then a comprehensive plan to address it is problematic not only because of the projections, but because without good data about where students are academically, educators and schools do not know which interventions or support students need. This is especially important in the absence of 2020 Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment data. Without either, policymakers and educators are flying blind when it comes to student support. 

Supporting Academic Growth 

Teachers and students have had to adapt quickly to ensure meaningful instruction in remote and hybrid settings. Schools have made many changes since the spring, and access to live instruction has increased significantly, with 75% of the plans ensuring access to at least some live teaching when not in person. This improvement is important, leading to enhanced learning, student-centered instruction, and more timely formative feedback. About two-thirds of plans also require that students and teachers have daily interaction. 

However, only 38% of the plans specified that students would have access to teacher office hours, which is a critical touchpoint that creates the opportunity for students to get one-on-one support and ask questions. Robbinsdale School District, for example, specifies that elementary students will have access to office hours two to three times per week on Google Meets, while middle and high school students will have access to teacher office hours on Wednesdays. 

Feedback on Assignments 

In this new reality, tracking student progress by collecting assignments, and assessing students’ progress toward academic benchmarks is a critical part to measuring whether students are staying on track and areas for catch up. Unfortunately, only one-fourth of the plans indicate whether students will receive feedback on assignments. 

Meeting Student’s Social-Emotional & Mental Health Needs

Minnesota students have faced prolonged disruption in many areas of their lives. It’s critical that, in addition to supporting students academically, schools are also addressing student’s social-emotional and mental health needs. This was a stronger aspect of the plans, with 58% of them indicating that students would have access to mental health support and 63% specifying that students would receive social-emotional support. The Community School of Excellence specified that they would have impact coaches and school counselors check-in regularly through a variety of mediums—Zoom, email, phone, Google Hangout—with students individually as well as provide social-emotional learning activities for groups of students. 

Where We Go From Here

As we head into colder weather and some schools roll back from in-person to hybrid or hybrid to distance learning, it’s clear that we’re not going back to full-time, in-person learning for all anytime soon. It’s essential that schools continue to evolve and adapt their learning models by implementing what’s worked elsewhere and moving away from what hasn’t. At the same time, state and national leaders need to provide sufficient support and flexibility to make it possible, while maintaining guardrails to ensure that no students are left behind. 

In the coming months, we will continue to uplift innovative and student-centered practices both in Minnesota and from around the country. Stay tuned for updates, and for action steps as legislators reconvene in just a couple of months.