Just after 4 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 12, Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Ed Graff announced to families, staff, and the press that the district of roughly 29,000 K-12 students would be moving to online learning two days later with a tentative reopening date two weeks after that on January 31. MPS parent Rachel Anderson described the moment. “I felt my heart drop.”
The move back to online school was in response to an increase in cases of COVID driven by the spread of the Omicron variant in Minneapolis and across the country, which led to more than 400 absent licensed teachers in the district on Tuesday and Wednesday and the inability for the district to place enough substitute teachers and central office staff in the openings to keep buildings operating safely. Absent licensed staff compounded staffing issues the district had faced all fall, including a shortage of bus drivers, food service staff and paraprofessionals who provide critical support for the district’s students and families.
The move to online learning left district staff and parents just a day to adjust to the new schedule. Unlike the 2020-2021 school year, when MPS was in distance learning until February 2021 for elementary school students (and even later for high school and middle school students), this year state regulations require the district to offer families the option to send their children into buildings as needed to access online instruction. Additionaly, much of the critical support families relied on to get through earlier phases of the pandemic are gone. This includes the elimination of the Minnesota State requirement that school districts provide childcare for essential workers, significant changes to pandemic food assistance, an end to the weekly food boxes for anyone under 18 in Minneapolis, federal stimulus payments, the eviction moratorium, and federally-mandated paid sick leave, and paid leave for COVID-19-related caregiving. The structure, stability and services that in-person MPS schools provide for families also went away, at least temporarily.
Four MPS Families Share Their Experiences With Online Learning
We reached out to four MPS mothers to talk to them about how the move to online learning on Jan. 14 has impacted their family. They talked with us about how their children are learning, the district’s prior COVID mitigation strategies, and what they hope happens for the remainder of the school year. We’re grateful for their openness and their willingness to share about what has been yet another challenge on top of so many others these past two years. While each family’s situation was different, they each shared several common themes that show the importance of having a stable, in-person education for MPS families.
The Anderson Wheeler Family
Editor’s note: The names of this family have been changed.
Rachel Anderson and her husband Sam Wheeler have two children, Pete, 4, and Will, 7. Will is in second grade at his neighborhood MPS elementary school. He has an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Pete attends a private preschool in the morning, and participates in the MPS Early Childhood and Family Education class Special Friends for children who have special needs. Pete also has an IEP and receives services through MPS’s Early Childhood Special Education program. Anderson works part-time, both in-person and at-home. Wheeler has been working 80+ hours per week in-person throughout the pandemic. The family employs a full-time nanny, Rosie, who has been with the family for many years.
The Spafford Omar Family
Leah Spafford Omar and her husband Taher Omar have two sixth graders at Justice Page Middle School, Khalil and Scarlett. The family moved to the Lynnhurst neighborhood last year from Hale.
Both parents work full-time. Omar’s employer has transitioned to fully remote work during the pandemic, while Spafford Omar has returned to working in-person. She is able to work from home while her children are in distance learning.
The Scott Henry Family
Jen Scott and her husband Pierre-Gilles Henry have two children, Oscar, who is in third grade at Barton Community School, and Leo, who is in preschool at the University of Minnesota Child Development Center.
Pierre-Gilles has been able to mostly work from home during the pandemic, but does sometimes go to his office at the University of Minnesota. Scott was not working at the start of the pandemic but transitioned to part-time in-person work in the fall of 2021.
The Gasca Family
Stephanie Gasca began the pandemic with her two children, Alejandro, 18, who graduated from North High School in 2021 and is now living away from home at college, and her daughter, Kennedy, 13, who is currently in eighth grade at Franklin Middle School. In October, Gasca’s two nieces, Amelia, 15, a student at South High, and Kali, 5, in kindergarten at Lucy Laney, and her nephew, Diego, 7, a first grader at Lucy Laney, came to live with her after their father died.
Gasca was working part-time during the 2020-2021 school year, and transitioned to full-time work. She has been able to work from home throughout the pandemic.
MPS Teachers are Doing an Incredible Job in Difficult Circumstances
All four families faced challenges with the at-home learning format last year, and this most recent transition. However, each family stressed how amazing the teachers have been for their students. When discussing her family’s distance learning experience at Field when Khalil and Scarlett were in fifth grade, Spafford Omar said, “I was really, really impressed with the teachers and how they handled distance learning [at] Field.”
When Scott’s child, Oscar, was at Lyndale School for second grade, she said, “that first year everyone was figuring it out, and we adored Oscar's second grade teacher at Lyndale. She was also very compassionate and so patient and also did a really good job of being like ‘You know what kiddos? We are figuring this out together’ because it was all so new.” Scott said Oscar’s experience at Barton has also been great. “I have absolute respect and love and will celebrate his teachers to the end of the world. He has been blessed with incredible teachers who have made the literal best out of an incredibly hard situation,” Scott said.
Anderson stressed her satisfaction with the teachers and staff her sons have had this year at the elementary school and MPS's early childhood programs. “I wanted to underline how thankful I am for the work Will’s classroom and special education teachers are doing,” Anderson said. “They are doing a wonderful job with an impossible task.” Anderson said Pete’s early education teacher “has gone above and beyond to support our family. I also wanted to add a glowing review for the Early Childhood Special Education team. I wish more families took advantage of their services and assistance.”
Gasca stressed the incredible support Alejandro received from his teachers at North High School last year as he was completing his senior year. “The teachers that both of my kids had last year, my senior at North, and then the seventh grade team that my daughter had at Franklin, were just really, really amazing and worked really, really hard,” Garca said. “With the seniors [they made] sure that even though things were different and stressful and kids felt like giving up and things were hard at home or with your mental health or whatever kids were struggling with, they were just trying really, really hard to be there for students. It's important to help them get across the finish line. A lot of compassionate care from the senior team that my senior had at North.”
Challenges for parents during online school, especially for elementary students
Despite the efforts parents feel like MPS teachers are making to support students during online learning, remote school has presented challenges for parents and students that are inherent to the remote format.
During last school year, Will lacked the in-person IEP support he typically received in school. If he had been in-person, he would have been pulled out from his classroom during the school day. When the district was in remote school, this pull-out model was upended. Instead he had online meetings for his services that were in addition to the online instruction time that general education students in his class received. Anderson said this doubled his workload compared to general education students. Anderson spent her days with Will managing his Google Meet schedule and asynchronous assignments, while the family nanny, Rosie, spent most of her time taking care of Pete.
Anderson said that Will had 17 separate Google Meet sessions each week last year, which were about 90 minutes more time online per day than a general education student. One of Will’s challenges is transitioning from one activity to another. Simply managing the large number of meetings, plus the asynchronous assignments was incredibly challenging for Anderson and Will. Anderson often found herself needing to set limits with the teachers and IEP services about what was possible for Will to complete in a day.
Currently, Will has six separate Google Meet appointments per day, in addition to asynchronous assignments. Anderson and Will are doing their best to do as much work as possible, but often do not attend all of the meetings or complete all of the assignments. Anderson said Will is not learning nearly as much as at in-person school, in part because he does not receive the one-on-one support online that he can have in-person.
In the Spafford Omar family, both children were in fifth grade when distance learning started in 2020. “You would think fifth graders would be somewhat self-sufficient, but I felt like I needed to be there once an hour making sure that they were logging into the right class,” Spafford Omar said. “I just remember that being a huge transition.” Like Anderson, Spafford Omar said managing the schedule of her kids was one of the many challenges. “Sometimes kids just wouldn't show up and then you're getting a call from the attendance line that they weren't there, and it's because you know one of my kids was locked into another classroom, right?,” Spafford Omar said. “Because my kids are in the same grade, I was always rankling like, ‘OK who’s with this teacher now?’ And it never coincided, so it was just a huge juggling act.”
For Gasca, she has noticed how much more help Kali and Diego need this year, compared to how independent Kennedy and Amelia are. “I don't know how people with little ones have been holding it down throughout this whole pandemic because this is my first time doing this part of it with elementary students and it is extremely difficult,” Gasca said. During the previous school year, she said Alejandro, a senior in high school at the time, and Kennedy, in middle school, had a clear schedule from their teachers and were able to follow it without much guidance from her. When we spoke last week, Gasca noted one challenge for her niece and nephew in kindergarten and first grade at Lucy Laney is that even though they are in the same building, their lunch and recess schedule is different. Although she feels fortunate to be able to work from home, “Who is gonna take two hours off of work to do two lunches? Why don't these kids have the same lunch?” Gasca asked.