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COVID learning loss in Minnesota schools: Five things you should know

The pandemic had a devastating effect on everyone involved in Minnesota education. Teachers are burned out, staff shortages abound, and students are years behind where they should be in crucial subjects. How do we support the education system and catch kids up?

Test scores are dismal, but educators, families and communities are working to fill in the gaps.

A group of education professionals shared what they are seeing at school with MPR News host Angela Davis. Together they explored what to do to confront the challenges.


  • Josh Crosson is the executive director of Ed Allies, an organization that works to ensure that all Minnesota students, especially those most underserved, have access to a great education.

  • Rachel Pearson is a parent advocate and trainer at the PACER Center, a nonprofit that champions youth with disabilities and their families.

  • Brenda Cassellius has spent three decades as an educator – most recently as the superintendent of Boston Public Schools, and before that, as Minnesota’s Commissioner of Education.

Here are five key moments from the conversation.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Click the audio player or video above to listen to the full conversation.

What exactly are we facing with COVID learning loss? To what extent can we quantify it?

Josh Crosson: We have the data that is coming from the National Assessments and the State Assessments. There is a steady reduction in math and reading even before the pandemic happened. And when you look at fourth grade reading, especially in Minnesota, we have for the first time dropped below the national average for all students in reading. We have seen that COVID has exacerbated those disparities and students of color, students with disabilities, low income learners, and English language learners were hit particularly hard.

Brenda Cassellius: Even though the numbers are not exact, the difficulties are very real. Our children are asking for help with their own sense of agency around advocating for their peers and for themselves as well. What I think is most striking is the intersectionality of the data of our students who are in special education, students of color, students in poverty, students who are EO (English only), and all of those barriers in front of them in terms of getting a great education. We should be looking at all the ways in which they are struggling, particularly our most vulnerable kids.

Rachel Pearson: We hear parents tell us every day about the loss that their students with disabilities experienced during the pandemic, and parents that had a bird's eye view because education moved into the home setting. The loss is tangible and palpable, we do not have hardcore numbers yet to describe it, though.

Was remote learning and not having the tools a big part of why we saw the slide backwards?

Brenda Cassellius: It absolutely was. There were teachers who really did not know how to use computers even, and then there were communication problems with families who spoke a language other than English at home. So we purchased a program that helped through text so that when you speak in English, it goes over in the other language, and then they could understand and they could speak that language back, and then the teachers could read it in English. I want to thank our families, because being in a remote environment was brand new and we could not have done it without them.

Josh Crosson: At the start of the pandemic, about 17 percent of Minnesotans did not have access to a computer or internet, and that was a huge slide especially in great and rural Minnesota where the service is choppy in certain areas. Poverty and express needs based on income, is absolutely something that we need to be addressing.

Rachel Pearson: One of the biggest issues for students with disabilities is getting a one-on-one personal device into the hands of students and getting any IT literacy available to the parents and the family. Moreover, access was a matter of just instruction losing all meaning when it was communicated and provided to them remotely. They could not access it because it did not work for them.

Help us understand the impact on students with disabilities.

Rachel Pearson: There are students with learning disabilities who use particular forms of assistive technology in the classroom. Getting them access to that assistive technology to connect to their classroom was difficult. Another sample of students with behavioral disabilities are the ones who rely on the support of a paraprofessional to participate successfully in a classroom. Well, school districts did not have the capacity to send one-to-one paraprofessionals or shared paraprofessionals home. So parents were attempting to fulfill that role if they were available.

In Minnesota, there is a law that mandates schools help families of students with an existing IEP (individualized education plan) come up with a path forward. Despite being an important law, parents had to learn all of the vocabulary around eligibility determination process and to present evidence. It was not enough to say, yes, my child was harmed by distance learning.

Brenda Cassellius: It was heart wrenching as a superintendent to not be able to serve our special needs students, particularly our students with complex needs, like PT (physical therapy). I would be in zoom calls with parents who were sobbing, because they were watching their children regress. And we could not deploy enough services because the complex needs were so great that they had multiple service providers in the school for their individual education plans. So we designed a committee with parents, union teacher leaders, administrators and students, to try to figure out how can we get our highest need priority kids back to school as soon as possible.

Josh Crosson: I think what we are seeing is a mental health crisis in our schools as well. Talking to parents, to educators, to students, mental health needs and concerns are being highlighted, which are not necessarily being captured by our IEPs, or our special education services. It is bringing up new issues around COVID recovery that we need to address immediately.

What are the impacts of the teacher shortage?

Brenda Cassellius: We cannot get good test scores or student achievement if we do not have a caring and competent teacher in every single classroom. Unfortunately, teachers are not coming into the field because of the perceptions that it is a very difficult and low payed job. Several years ago, Minnesota passed the tiered licensing that allows teachers to have a tiered system to get into entry level positions, and then grow and become a master teacher. We need more innovation around that. And then we need more diverse teachers who understand the cultural competence of the students and are able to work with students with multiple disabilities

Josh Crosson: In the state of Minnesota we define a shortage as any teacher currently in the classroom, that has an entry level teaching position. We are calling a teachers who are in front of our students, who are doing well by many measures, a shortage, a deficit. Twenty five percent of them are our teachers of color.

Minnesota invested $400,000 in a program called “Come teach in Minnesota” since we are the fifth widest Teaching Cohort in the nation. We got six people to move to the state but they did not qualify because they were coming in at that entry level license, as a tier two license teacher.

Rachel Pearson: There is also a massive paraprofessional shortage in school districts across the state. When the number of paraprofessionals goes down, the students with disabilities who rely on them to be successful, could lose their inclusion opportunity. That is just tremendously hurtful for students with disabilities. There are also bus driver shortages across the state. And means that school districts have to send bus drivers out on early routes and late routes. As a consequence, students with disabilities are going home early and missing part of their last class at school, which is a violation of their right to free and appropriate public education.

What role does tutoring play moving forward?

Josh Crosson: We know high dosage tutoring works very well. What we are still trying to figure out is how to get that tutoring in an equitable way. How are we providing transportation services? How are we educating parents and students about these opportunities?, and incentivizing these opportunities as well. Unfortunately, when we do not have substitutes, or bus drivers, those roles are being filled by reading specialists and by tutors. In rural Minnesota, we have seen the principal being a bus driver and the principal.

Rachel Pearson: A tutor brings an extra injection of services across the board, specially from the perspective of students with disabilities. Whether that is mental health support, getting out into the community for employment, reading skills, and independent living skills, whether that is an extra heavy dose of of learning Braille, learning sign language, assistive technology literacy, social skills… all of these things are needed to be poured into our students now.

Brenda Cassellius: It is going to take along time to dig ourselves out of the hole. I would say 10 years of effort. It will have to be intentional, even with tutoring. People think that getting tutors is a quick fix and all of a sudden students are going to know these concepts and be able to thrive. This is a much more complex situation and it will be down to the individual student family level to see progress.

Story Circle highlights

Last week, MPR’s Community Engagement team hosted a Story Circle for educators, students and parents in Minnesota to share their experience with COVID learning loss. 

Suki Mozenter, education teacher at the University of Minnesota Duluth: 

What did kids learn during the pandemic? They learned that everything can completely fall apart. They learned that they can lose the people who care for them. They learned that being together can be unsafe, to the point where we had to stay away from each other. That being alone can be awful and really lonely. When we talk about learning loss, it shifts away from what our kids have learned and what we need to then teach them so they can cope with this new learning.

Kija Deer, Jacob Stanoch and E. Meier, who were in school when COVID broke out:

Kija Deer: I was a junior going into the COVID era. I was not really doing much of my schoolwork, I was just letting it build up because I was like, it is online. I can do it whenever. So I did not graduate the year I was supposed to.   

Jacob Stanoch: Especially during the pandemic, there was a lack of motivation to get things done. They are not doing as much so they are not learning as much. Since they are not learning as much, they do not care as much. We wanted to go back into the classroom and go back to the traditional way of learning because of the social aspects that came with being in a classroom. We did not want to adapt to this new learning style and be online only talking through social media. 

E. Meier: I like the idea of being able to learn more independently. I consider myself a strong writer, so it had been nice to not be babysat through papers and assignments that I knew how to do. Hopping on and getting your assignment and hopping off Zoom was kinda nice.  

Ayan Omar, former language arts teacher and current equity director for St. Cloud public schools:  

I am seeing more and more classroom teachers where the kid has 53 missing assignments. They are just trying to find a way to equip this student with the skills necessary to do better. Not necessarily to get caught up. If you are a couple of grade levels behind in reading, what skills do you need to face tomorrow? So that gives me hope that, not only are parents really evaluating their own approach to their own children, but we have teachers willing to say: this kid is not going to understand Shakespeare, but I am going to teach him how to make friends. 

To listen to the full conversation you can use the audio player above.

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This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.
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