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Other’s opinion: Support, patience needed as Minn. relies on online learning

Star Tribune

Minnesota’s educational lesson plan calls for a reliance on technology and plenty of patience on the part of students, parents, teachers and administrators.

This is the first week of the state’s new world of distance, online learning. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, last month Gov. Tim Walz ordered that state schools be closed for traditional classroom instruction no later than March 18.

Districts were given two weeks to plan for the transition. And many schools have risen to the challenge by hurriedly developing plans, selecting platforms, putting together paper lesson packets, and arranging to provide food for students and child care for health care workers.

But two weeks is precious little time to shift completely away from a classroom-based education system that’s been in place for generations. There will be complications along the way as teachers, students and families adapt to various approaches to online learning. On Monday there were reports of some glitches getting online platforms such as Zoom and Schoology to work properly.

Yet even as adjustments are made, vigilance is in order to be sure that Minnesota children are learning and that closing school buildings does not lead to an extended spring vacation.

Minnesota’s largest districts — Anoka-Hennepin, Minneapolis and St. Paul — are among the school systems working to get students the hardware and internet access they need. They’re distributing laptops or tablets to students who need them as well as connecting them to resources for free- or low-cost hot spots and internet access. And they’ve prepared pencil-and-paper packets for students who may not be able to use the internet for a variety of reasons.

St. Paul Superintendent Joe Gothard told an editorial writer that there are “huge variations” in readiness for distance learning among teachers locally and across the country. But he pointed out that educators with stronger technology skills have stepped up to teach their colleagues.

On that score, Minneapolis school officials said they have videos available to help their teachers with setting up and carrying out online lessons. In addition, guides and other resources for online learning are available at most school district websites, as well as at the Minnesota and federal Department of Education sites.

On the home front, some families are better prepared than others to support their students, with key variables being household income and education levels. That’s why it’s critical that schools continue to provide services — even at a distance — so that Minnesota’s troubling disparities gaps don’t grow wider.

Beyond academics, it’s been heartening to see districts quickly mobilize to meet students’ nutritional needs. Most have set up sites where families can pick up free breakfasts, lunches and milk regardless of eligibility for free or reduced rates. Or they’ve sent school buses into neighborhoods loaded with meals that parents can depend on to feed their children.

Just two weeks ago, the Star Tribune Editorial Board credited Walz for closing schools in the face of the pandemic. That was when Minnesota had only 35 confirmed cases of COVID-19. As of Tuesday, that number had jumped to 629, with 12 deaths, and the number of new cases in the state is rising daily.

At-home learning will last until at least May 4, but districts and parents must be prepared for schools to remain closed through the end of the school year. As Minnesotans adjust to the uncertainty — and to online learning — they’ll be graded on pulling together to help Minnesota’s students make the best of a difficult time.