REGIONAL- As debates heat up across the country about what to do about schools in the fall, more than two-thirds of area parents who responded to a recent statewide survey said they were comfortable …
REGIONAL- As debates heat up across the country about what to do about schools in the fall, more than two-thirds of area parents who responded to a recent statewide survey said they were comfortable with sending their children back to school, and more than half reported having bad experiences with distance education.
The overall results for responses identified with Ely, Tower-Soudan, and North Woods school service areas mirrored those of the 130,000-plus respondents to the nonscientific online survey conducted by the state Department of Education and reported last week.But a deeper dive into the data suggests not only that distance education may have been more challenging here, but that it could continue to be so in the future.
Parents from area schools who responded to the survey were more likely than those statewide to report that their children felt less empowered to work on their own, experienced new mental health concerns, or found it hard to understand the lessons they received. Area parents also reported communications with teachers and schools to be more challenging, and the largest gap between area and statewide challenges was in internet access.
The Timberjay obtained the original survey data from the Department of Education and isolated 151 responses that could be linked with cities in the service areas for Ely, Tower-Soudan, and North Woods schools. Individual records were not identified by school district but taken together these responses allow for tentative comparisons with statewide results.
The percentage of local and statewide respondents rating their distance education experience as “bad” was exactly the same, at 42.4 percent. A greater percentage of locals, 15.2 percent, marked “very bad” compared to the statewide 10.3 percent. Conversely, the ratings for having a “good” experience were also close, 36.4 percent locally to 35.2 percent statewide. Fewer area respondents rated their experience as “very good,” 2.6 percent to 9.5 percent statewide.
Noticeable differences between area and statewide results were discovered when reviewing challenges parents said they encountered from a list of 14 possible choices.
Both groups had the same top three challenges: children who didn’t feel empowered to work on their own, who displayed mental health issues as a result of COVID-19 and the change to distance learning, and who had difficulty understanding the lessons they received. In each instance, area parents expressed more concern than the statewide results.
Most notable was the difference in the feeling of being empowered to work on their own. Statewide, 47.4 percent identified this as a challenge, but 60.3 percent of area parents did so.
Area parents also reported more issues with teacher and school communication. Thirty-five percent of area responses picked teacher communication as a challenge, compared with 28.1 percent statewide. Challenges with school communication were reported by 28.5 percent of area parents, but only 19.1 percent of parents statewide.
Communication challenges may be explained in part by the widest gap in reported challenges, that of internet access. Area parents reported nearly three times as much difficulty with internet access, 21.9 percent locally versus 7.5 percent statewide. With less internet access available to their families, both Ely and St. Louis County school districts had to rely more heavily on alternatives for communicating with students and parents.
Superintendents for both districts acknowledged at the outset of distance learning in March that many of their families did not have internet access or had unreliable connections, and both have taken steps to expand access before fall.
Their efforts may be bolstered by a statewide school technology initiative, ConnectedMN, that was announced by Gov. Tim Walz at the end of June. Noting that an estimated 25,000 Minnesota students don’t have internet access, Walz said the partnership between technology companies and state agencies is intended to eliminate that deficit by the time school starts.
Return to school
Roughly two-thirds of parents who completed the survey, both statewide and from this area, indicated that they would be comfortable having their children return to their schools this fall. The remaining one-third of respondents were either unsure or not comfortable about sending their children back, with potential health issues being the top concern.
With the majority of respondents completing their surveys in late June, it is unknown what effect the recent increase in COVID-19 cases might have on their responses.
Informal online surveys where people choose whether or not to participate have been shown to be less reliable than formal surveys conducted with specific groups, but Department of Education Assistant Director of Communications Ashleigh Norris noted that the survey is just one of many ways the department is seeking information to guide their decision-making for the fall. Focus groups have been conducted statewide that provide more in-depth information about distance learning and the differences in experiences between rural and urban areas, she said. Additional formal analysis of the distance learning plans of 148 large and small districts and 118 charter schools, conducted by the University of Minnesota’s Wisconsin/Minnesota Comprehensive Center, is being compiled and will report on regional insights.
Last week, President Donald Trump threatened to withhold federal money from schools if they don’t fully reopen, and he called the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for reopening schools during the pandemic “impractical” and “expensive.”
The decision to reopen schools is one that rests with local and state leaders. Minnesota officials have said they will likely make a decision in the last week of July.
Education officials instructed Minnesota school districts to prepare for three different scenarios in the upcoming academic year: full-time in-person learning, full-time distance learning, and a hybrid of those two options.
Minnesota Public Radio contributed to this report.