How the pandemic forever altered the shape of education in Minnesota

Academics collided with life challenges, but there were some triumphs — and many see more hope ahead.

How the pandemic forever altered the shape of education in Minnesota

Academics collided with life challenges, but there were some triumphs — and many see more hope ahead.

Principal Anne Gattman took students’ temperatures as they arrived at St. Jerome School in Maplewood.
Principal Anne Gattman took students’ temperatures as they arrived at St. Jerome School in Maplewood.

— Anthony Souffle, Star Tribune

Minnesota schools and colleges got a lesson in whiplash changes this year.

School buildings opened and closed. Events were announced and then canceled. Celebrations marked milestones in the glow of a Zoom window instead of with friends and classmates. For students, teachers, principals and parents, stresses piled upon stresses, from COVID-19 pandemic illness and isolation to economic struggles and social unrest. School districts grappled with wild, unexpected enrollment and budget swings. Professors broadcast lessons from their living rooms. Teachers spent their days reminding students to wear their masks, wash their hands and avoid getting too close to friends.

It's too early to calculate the many ways this year will leave its mark on the state's education system, but it's clear that some things will never be the same. State projections show that it could be years before school enrollment returns to prepandemic levels. Online learning, once a limited offering in the state's K-12 schools, will become a permanent fixture of new virtual academies and college campuses. The pandemic has left people contemplating other lasting changes, too.

As they finished out this chaotic school year, some of the thousands of people involved in education in Minnesota told the Star Tribune about what they've been through and what they think may change as schools and colleges emerge from the pandemic.

The student

Isabelle Mish is trying — really, really trying — to stay focused on her schoolwork as her eighth-grade year at St. Peter Middle School winds to a close.

She wants to be ready for all the classes and adventures that await next year, when she begins high school.

But Isabelle is struggling. Eighth grade was supposed to be about owning the middle school world before having to start over as the little kid in high school. Instead, it was a forced exercise in the kind of time management, organization and concentration that's not usually required until adulthood.

As the virus spread and Isabelle shifted from hybrid to distance learning, back to hybrid, home for a month of quarantine, and then back to in-person learning, her mind whirred. Where was she supposed to log in? When and how could she ask for help with a tough assignment? Was her dad, sick with COVID-19, going to be OK?

"It would take me like a solid month each time we switched to actually fully get used to it, adapt and find a routine," she said.

Unhelpful adults sometimes would tell her it was all no big deal: They worked from home, too, and it was fine. Isabelle figures they can't picture just how different it is to be 14, without your friends or someone to teach you all that stuff you need to figure out for high school and everything beyond.

She's eager for next year, hoping she'll have to deal with just regular high school jitters, not all the pandemic complications. But it's been a long time since she's been in a classroom full time, and she wonders if she's still up for it.

"Having to go back to having five days a week, every week sounds a little overwhelming," she said.

Erin Golden

The teacher

Wiped out by a bout with COVID-19, Edairra McCalister still felt the need to rise to the calling. So on May 10, she got out of bed to testify online to lawmakers on the need for more teachers of color.

She had been through a lot in the 2020-21 school year. Here was McCalister, a Black woman proud of sharing the voices of marginalized people with her students, feeling stressed and isolated herself at Osseo Senior High.

"This year is the first year that I've truly learned what teacher burnout means," she told lawmakers.

The hearing provided a lift, however, when a former student said McCalister had been her first teacher of color and made a difference in her life.

The appearance came after McCalister opted to take a short leave of absence. Later, in an interview, she said she had almost walked away for good.

For students, transition years are "crazy important," McCalister said, and as a ninth-grade English teacher, she had to try to connect with them as they moved from online only to hybrid and then full in-person learning. The class was her quietest ever — then add face masks.

McCalister teaches at Metropolitan State University, too, and acknowledges that as a single mother of three, "the amount of moving parts was too tough for me to manage."

She plans to teach at Osseo's new permanent online school this fall, and while she says she'll miss the traditional classroom, she needs the fresh start and will bring her tenacity back to the fore.

Anthony Lonetree

The school nurse

Whenever Crystal Diehl gets the call — during a school day, at night, on the weekend — she starts trying to stop COVID-19 from spreading inside Duluth Public Schools.

As the school district's lead nurse, Diehl works with 11 school nurses and about a dozen more medical assistants. News of a positive case means she must quickly map out where a student has been and who he or she may have infected. Where did they sit in the classroom? At lunch? Did they attend a track meet, or meet up with friends after school?

"I've been on call really every day since August," Diehl said. "It's an important job to stop the spread."

School nursing always has been a public health job. But this year, the state's hundreds of school nurses have seen their responsibilities stretched in new directions by the pandemic. They learned everything they could about the virus and explained it to students and families — all while still keeping tabs on students' health, particularly those with complex medical needs. And they have had to contend with families wary of their contact-tracing efforts or pandemic safety measures, Diehl said.

The return to school buildings has brought back some sense of normalcy, but Diehl said nurses also are seeing a "huge spike" in students suffering from mental health concerns, a side effect of the pandemic that she expects will carry into the next school year. She said many school nurses are themselves feeling burnout, but she's hopeful people now know school nurses do much more than hand out Band-Aids and ice packs.

"I do think the value of school nursing is shining through right now," she said.

Erin Golden

The mom

Jada Nutter was expecting to have the house to herself during school hours.

Instead, the stay-at-home mom runs up and down the stairs of her south Minneapolis home, trying to keep her four children on task during distance learning. She listens for various timers, set to go off a few minutes before each child's scheduled meetings.

"Just like my kids," she said, "I'm ready to be done."

Nutter opted to keep her children — who are in kindergarten, second, fifth and eighth grade at three schools — at home to reduce the risk of exposing other family members to COVID-19. Most of her day is spent helping her youngest two children, and she feels "mom guilt" for not being able to offer the same level of focus to her oldest two.

"I'm lucky if everyone has gotten their work done by the end of the day," Nutter said.

Still, distance learning has taught her children independence and responsibility for their learning, and she's confident those skills will help her oldest two sons as they transition into middle and high school.

This year also has prompted Nutter to reflect on the roles schools play for families and communities.

"We rely on school for so much, and I hope we truly realize that," she said.

Mara Klecker

The superintendent

How many kids go to school and what it means for the bottom line can be a constant worry for superintendents.

That was especially true this year as enrollment and finances fluctuated. But St. Paul Superintendent Joe Gothard said the district would do all it could to support students.

This, after all, was a community that lost Board Chairwoman Marny Xiong to COVID-19 and was operating remotely as students reeled after George Floyd's death.

"There were hopeless times," Gothard said.

Student numbers tumbled — at a greater rate than expected. But the district also delayed in-person learning, easing expenditures. Then, with an influx of federal funding, the budget picture improved.

The district's rainy-day fund is projected to grow, and a second wave of federal money helped save 132 jobs for the 2021-22 school year. St. Paul also expects to receive another $207 million in American Rescue Plan funding; 72 teachers will be added to help elementary and middle school students get back on track in math and reading.

But the federal funds are one-time money, Gothard said. The district cannot invest in things it can't sustain — and will have to make other decisions soon about the right number of staff, schools and programs.

Still, Gothard said, "I'm proud of what we accomplished."

Anthony Lonetree

The principal

Anne Gattman's budget for teacher appreciation activities is through the roof this year.

As the principal of St. Jerome, a private Catholic school in Maplewood, she's determined to applaud the educators who have been teaching behind masks and plexiglass barriers in-person all year.

"I know they're exhausted," Gattman said, noting she'll forgo traditional job evaluations at the end of the year for more goal-oriented check-ins with her staff. One of the new objectives they'll consider: peace of mind.

"Mental health conversations were never a part of that formal teacher evaluation," she said. "But it needs to be, and I think it will continue to be."

Gattman is in her fourth year as principal of St. Jerome, which has about 200 students in preschool through eighth grade. The pandemic taught her to embrace uncertainty, lean on collaboration and trust her own decisions, she said.

She's already fielding a lot of questions about next year. Will masks be mandatory? Can desks be rearranged without strict social distancing?

"Honestly, we don't know that yet," Gattman said.

For now, she's focused on St. Jerome's first-ever summer school, starting in June. About 60% of the students have enrolled, and she wants to ensure they make up what they lost in distance learning since the pandemic began.

"We're all the more focused on making sure our time is learning time," she said. "That priority will definitely stick with us."

Mara Klecker

The college student

Shashank Murali could hardly wait to start his freshman year at the University of Minnesota. From meeting lifelong friends to exploring the sprawling Twin Cities campus, Murali was eager to start this next life chapter.

But once the pandemic took hold, his expectations for college life became "incredibly low." Murali, a 19-year-old from Maple Grove, nixed plans to live in a campus dormitory, which his parents thought would be too risky, and rented an apartment near campus with a high school friend.

He found it difficult to build a friends group during his freshman year. In off-campus apartments, students don't interact with their neighbors as freshmen do in dormitories.

Making matters worse, all of Murali's classes, in both the fall and spring semesters, were taught online. He met some students through his mostly virtual involvement with the U's undergraduate student government and a model United Nations club. But he said, "I wasn't able to get on campus and meet people as I thought I would be able to."

Murali, who's studying marketing and entrepreneurial management, said he did discover he learns better through online classes and hopes they will remain an option.

Most of all, though, Murali is praying campus life will return to normal before his sophomore year begins. He's not just looking forward to expanding his social circle, but also reveling in cherished campus pastimes.

"I'm definitely looking forward to the football games," he said. "That's one of the biggest things I was really excited for … that I wasn't able to do."

Ryan Faircloth

The college president

Macalester College President Suzanne Rivera mingled with seniors during an outdoor concert on the St. Paul campus, celebrating a bittersweet end to an unprecedented year.

"Our campus community experienced a lot of pain this year," Rivera said, noting the stresses of the pandemic, the death of George Floyd and the ensuing unrest that gripped the Twin Cities.

Many students struggled with grief, burnout and loneliness. Dormitories were much quieter with just one student per room.

The cautious approach helped keep campus COVID-19 transmission "extremely low," Rivera said, but it also fueled isolation.

The college spent millions of dollars on COVID-19 testing, distance-learning technology and other pandemic-driven needs. Administrators took pay cuts, employee retirement contributions were suspended and hiring was frozen to offset costs.

But some silver linings emerged.

Online and hybrid classes offered students and faculty more flexibility, Rivera said. Although professors are excited to return to the classroom, they may continue with some online learning.

Macalester revamped its recruitment, reaching prospective students virtually and waiving SAT and ACT requirements. That fueled a 42% spike in freshman applications.

Rivera said she believes Macalester's future is brighter now than it was before.

"I hope we're not going to return to the old normal," Rivera said. "We actually found ways of improving the things we do."

Ryan Faircloth