After school-closure announcement, teachers and districts across Minnesota get to work

Gov. Tim Walz (right) speaks Sunday during a press conference
Gov. Tim Walz (right) speaks Sunday during a press conference announcing the closure of K-12 schools by Wednesday in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 as Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker (second to right) and other state officials listen.
Evan Frost | MPR News

When Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced Sunday that all K-12 public schools in the state must close by Wednesday to slow the spread of coronavirus, Marie Hansen breathed a sigh of relief.

The 11th grade English teacher in Burnsville has Type 1 diabetes — and as an immunocompromised person, that makes her especially vulnerable to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Hansen works at Burnsville High School, where there are more than 2,500 students and staff coming and going from the building each day. Before the announcement, she was worried about her ability to participate in social distancing in a school that large.

Walz and other state officials said the school closure, through March 27, is intended to allow educators to prepare for the possibility of longer-term online education.

For Hansen, distance learning will be easy: A lot of her curriculum is already online, each student at her school has a Chromebook and students who don’t have internet access at home are given a hot spot to get online.

But not all students and teachers have those resources, or as smooth a transition to online learning.

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“I really feel for my elementary school teaching colleagues or people who are special ed case managers. They’re going to have, I think, a lot harder adjustment because a lot of their face-to-face learning doesn’t translate online,” Hansen said.

One of those teachers is Qorsho Hassan. She teaches fifth grade teacher at Gideon Pond Elementary — which is also in the city of Burnsville. While her students may have access to tablets and computers, she says they need supervision to stay on task.

She's also worried about testing. Her students are scheduled to take the MCAs this year — the statewide tests that gauge student comprehension of reading math and science.

“I think with, you know, the interruptions that are happening with their learning it will be hard for them to process academic standards at home. And be able to learn new content, to be honest, without teacher support," she said.

After boasting Sunday that the state had the most comprehensive plan in the country, Walz later conceded that this is not a situation where there's a rubric to follow.

Walz's office said his plan "makes provisions for the continuity of mental health services and requires schools to continue providing meals to students in need."

The plan also requires schools to provide child care for elementary-aged students of health care professionals, first responders and other emergency workers, so they don't have to leave work to care for their children. But in Rochester, a city with a significant number of health care workers, figuring out which ones fall under the umbrella of "emergency workers" isn't easy.

Speaking on Sunday, Rochester Public Schools Superintendent Michael Muñoz said he has been meeting with representatives from the health care system in the city for weeks now.

"We want to get that group together tomorrow to help us identify who are the critical people you need to have there — and that'd give us an idea of how many staff that we're looking at," he said. "And that will give us an idea what number of students we should expect."

Walz said his office is continuing to monitor the situation by the hour.