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COVID-19 and distance learning could widen achievement gap

Minnesota already has some of the worst racial disparities in education. The pandemic poses more challenges.

ST PAUL, Minn. — With COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations increasing to record levels, the Minnesota Department of Health has recommended full distance learning for roughly 71% of the state’s counties, according to the latest data shared Thursday.

It appears the challenges of online schooling will not be going away any time soon.

Katy Armendariz, the parent of two students in the Minneapolis Public Schools, said the distance model has been “very, very stressful.” To ease the burden, she placed her kids in so-called “learning pods,” in order to pool resources and work with tutors.

“It’s complicated, especially for my first-grader,” Armendariz said. “Every single day, having three different times to log in and have live class, it’s really tough without having someone help. It’s been really important for us to have that additional help.”

Armendariz also sees the challenges from a professional standpoint, as the CEO of Minnesota CarePartner, a group that works to tackle racial disparities with a focus on mental health. During the pandemic, Minnesota CarePartner has created learning pods for kids on medical assistance or with mental health concerns, helping them to concentrate better as they attend classes online.

“So hopefully, they do not fall too much farther behind. But, there are so many systemic issues that we obviously need to address,” Armendariz said. “[The pandemic] is absolutely going to have a catastrophic effect on the achievement gap. The digital divide between black and brown communities is huge.”

Minnesota already has one of the widest achievement gaps in the country.

For example, according to research from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, white students in Minnesota scored 65 percent proficient in fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math in 2018. Native American students, meanwhile, scored 31 percent and 25 percent proficient; Black students scored 31 percent and 29 percent; and Hispanic students scored 32 percent and 35 percent. Asian students also scored lower, with 48 percent of students considered proficient at fourth-grade reading and 63 percent for eighth-grade math. Income also played a major role in test scores, with students on free or reduced meals scoring at 36 percent in both categories.

“This situation has made it even more difficult, for them to be successful,” said Karen Kelley-Ariwoola, the Chief Operating Officer of Northside Achievement Zone, a non-profit that works to end the achievement gap in North Minneapolis. “In particular, for low-income, African American families, who do not have many of the resources that might be needed to kind of fill in the gaps.”

The online learning model hasn’t been a problem for every family. Cicely Ramirez, who has two children attending Seven Hills Preparatory Academy, said staff and teachers have offered “tremendous support” and that their hybrid model has worked well so far.

However, Ramirez acknowledged that other parents and kids are struggling, partly because the pandemic has forced some schools to constantly shuffle back-and-forth between in-person, hybrid and distance learning models.

“It’s stressful for the teachers, stressful for the parents, and confusing to the kids, especially the younger kids,” Ramirez said. “So, I would like them to pick one and stick with it.”

There is another category of students facing huge challenges: kids with special needs. 

Tonja Henjum’s nine-year-old daughter attends the Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools, where she’s learning with a hybrid model right now. Recently, however, she had to move fully to distance learning because she had developed a cough.

“We got a taste of what distance learning would be like, and it was a complete failure for my daughter. A lot of screaming, crying, tantrums, and her teachers all worked to offer support, but they saw too where there’s nothing they can do to pull out of that,” Henjum said. “Unless she’s physically in school, getting hands on help, I feel like she’s not learning.”

Unfortunately for Henjum, full in-person learning may not return until the COVID-19 situation improves. The state health department’s latest guidelines do not recommend a single Minnesota county for in-person school at this point, based on data from Oct. 18 to Oct. 31.

Students of color, low-income families and kids with special needs may feel the biggest impact.

“In many ways, the band-aid has been ripped off. We see what’s clearly working, and what’s not working,” Karen Kelley-Ariwoola said. “We know we have a lot of work to do to improve the educational system.”