Educators: thousands of Mn students lack access to distance learning. Details & suggestions here

The following column appeared in several APG of East Central Minnesota newspapers during late April and early May 2020.  The columns were “localized” to reflect information shared by 28 rural, suburban and urban educators, from district and chartered public schools.  Reports from all 28 educators are found here: This version of the column appeared in the Star News, serving the Elk River/Rogers/Zimmerman area.

Despite efforts by our state’s educators, thousands of Minnesota students don’t have either the technology or internet connection they need for distance learning. With Gov. Tim Walz’s April 23 announcement that distance learning will continue, this urgently needs more attention. Here’s a summary of what we know and what might be done.

First, let’s recognize that this is an extremely stressful, challenging time – something like being on a roller coaster going up a hill, while trying to do other things, and not knowing what’s on the other side of the hill or how long the ride will last. While several thousand Minnesota students have been learning via the internet for years, this is new to most Minnesota educators and families. And none of us have ever faced something like COVID-19.

To help understand the situation, Minnesota’s Department of Education asked districts and chartered public schools to report regularly on, among other things, how many students in the district don’t have access to:

— Appropriate computers, printers or other hardware needed for remote learning.

— High speed internet or broadband to support remote learning.

Wendy Hatch, MDE’s public affairs manager, sent me responses received on Friday, April 17. About 230 of Minnesota districts and charters responded. That’s slightly less than half of Minnesota’s 496 traditional districts and chartered public schools. While results varied dramatically from one district to another, they showed that more than 7,000 students didn’t have access to a computer or related equipment, and more than 7,000 didn’t have access to high-speed internet or broadband. This is a huge issue in many rural and suburban as well as urban communities.

Here’s what educators shared about the local situation.

Elk River Area School District Superintendent Dan Bittman explained 500 K-12 students did not have access to high-speed internet or broadband to support remote learning. All students in ISD 728, which serves Elk River, Otsego, Zimmerman and Rogers, with internet connections have the equipment needed that would allow them to connect.

APG of East Central Minnesota newspapers offer a link highlighting the local situation. As news editor Keith Anderson explained: “Click on the coronavirus tab in our horizontal navigation. Once there, look to the right rail.” There’s a widget that allows you to plug in the district you are interested in. It shows the percentage of students who don’t have access to a computer at home and who also don’t have internet access.

State numbers above didn’t include Minneapolis or St. Paul. Julie Schultz Brown, executive director of marketing and communications for Minneapolis Public Schools, said they’ve found that 1,878 MPS students needed devices, and somewhat less 3,100 needed internet connectivity. That’s after MPS delivered more than 12,000 computers and many internet hot spots, which allow connectivity.

Kevin Burns, director of St. Paul Public Schools’ office of communications, reported that the district has distributed many Chromebooks and hot spots. However, as of April 17, 839 students did not have necessary equipment and 2,701 did not have internet access.

Marc Johnson, executive director of a 14-district regional communications network called ECMECC, told me that he’s on a statewide governor’s task force that helped equalize internet connections among Minnesota schools. Now, he agrees, it’s vital to do this for families.

Johnson said, “This includes families that are without current access, those whose connection is insufficient to participate in distance learning, and those who can’t afford it.” Johnson noted that Minnesota will receive millions of dollars from Congress to help support public schools and students during the COVID-19 crisis. This leads me to several recommendations:

1. MDE should make strong home/apartment connections to the internet and needed equipment a top priority for schools receiving federal subgrants. Several groups sent an April 21 letter to MDE urging this. That letter is here: https://bit.ly/3504ii5.

2. Since almost every Minnesota family has television, Minnesota should help expand and publicize public television’s home learning resources, found here: https://www.tpt.org/homelearning/.

3. Public TV should reach out to students and families as well as educators to allow them to contribute program ideas, art, projects, etc.

4. MDE’s group developing future recommendations should include family and student representatives, along with educators and community members. Let’s plan with, not just plan for. This group should talk with, among others, professor Thomas Hatch of Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City. Hatch offers wise, brief, concise suggestions at https://thomashatch.org reminding us that learning can and should include active, hands-on learning and service, not just screen time.

These are “trying times.” Let’s apply Minnesotans’ creativity, energy, insights and talent to help youngsters in a very difficult situation. — Joe Nathan (Editor’s note: Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. He has taught online courses. Reactions welcome, joe@centerforschoolchange.org.)