Coronavirus Daily Briefing: State leaders, students and educators discuss distance learning

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During the state’s daily COVID-19 briefing Friday, officials with the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), Gov. Tim Walz, Lieutenant Gov. Peggy Flanagan and a couple Minnesota students and teachers discussed the decision to close schools for the rest of the school year and how to stop exacerbating inequalities that have been brought to the forefront due to the pandemic.

Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) Commissioner Jan Malcolm gave an update on the number of cases in the United States and Minnesota. There are now 869,000 cases in the United States and over 50,000 deaths. A total of 244 additional cases were confirmed over the last 24 hours in Minnesota and an additional 21 people died, bringing the state’s total number of COVID-19-related deaths to 221. Of the deaths over the last 24 hours, 18 were in long-term care facilities.

Minnesota sees 21 additional COVID-19 deaths, total cases reach 3,185

Gov. Walz began the briefing by speaking about the difficulty of the decision to close schools, saying that he knows "tears have been shed about this." While the decision was a difficult one and people are having difficulty with the loss, we have strong and resilient people, said Walz.

Walz went on to discuss the technology gap of students and how that gap needs to be bridged. Flanagan elaborated on the schooling inequalities and the difficulties of distance learning. With the lack of broadband in many parts of outstate Minnesota, it is difficult for students to distance learn effectively, Flanagan said. Along with the lack of broadband, many Minnesotans either share a computer or have parents working from home, which can also make it difficult to effectively learn.

"I’ve seen many people say COVID-19 is the great equalizer but that couldn’t be further from the truth, it’s laid the inequities in our society bare," Flanagan said.

In addition to the difficulties of distance learning, the mental health of students cann’t be overlooked, either, Flanagan said. She reminded Minnesotans, "you are not alone and there are people here to help."

Following the remarks of the governor and lieutenant governor, a group of Minnesota students and teachers spoke about their experiences thus far during distance learning.

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First-grader Claire Murphy said she’s sad that school has closed for the year but that distance learning is going okay. It’s hard but we want people to stay healthy she said. High school senior Lap Nguyen remarked that access to an environment for learning can be difficult for many students. While teachers and school officials are doing their very best and helping with the loneliness of the ‘stay at home’ order, distance learning highlights the necessity of interaction in our education model. A math teacher for high needs students in the west metro said the pandemic has brought the inequalities of her students into the spotlight. While her students frequently get medical and mental health support at school, they are having difficulties getting those needs met during distance learning. She also discussed the discrimination and violence many people of Asian descent are experiencing during this pandemic and urged people to interrupt racism wherever you see it. Lastly, a third-grade teacher spoke of the uncharted territory that she is facing. The difficulty of having consistent internet is clear as she has to get up at 1 a.m. to get work done and can’t respond to students’ requests due to her lack of consistent internet. She said she has to go back to the classroom and bring her child with her to effectively teach.

Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker summed up what the state is doing to help. She said that they are tracking what is working and what is not working. The feedback is that distance learning hasn’t been perfect and that it’s very difficult. The first thing the state is doing is to help the situation is to commit to building relationships, because she said the relationship between a student, their family and the school is at the center of any equitable distance learning program. Second, the state is working to get broadband and devices to students who need them. That will be a priority of federal dollars, according to state leaders. Third, teaching is not a solitary effort, and schools aren’t just educational spaces but also social and emotional spaces. The Minnesota Department of Education is partnering with interagency groups to make sure adults are checking in on everyone.

During the question-and-answer portion of the briefing, Walz and his team answered numerous questions regarding schooling. Regarding how relationships can lead to better learning, Ricker explained that the best teaching and learning conditions are done in a safe and welcoming environment for students.

Walz finished the briefing by reiterating the state’s commitment to making sure every child gets a quality education.

"We will get there together," Walz said.