Unscientific survey shows most MN families want in-person school, despise distance learning

Desks sit distant from each other in a gym.
Students work in a gym at Banfield Elementary that has been repurposed so they can work on activities and engage in distance learning while implementing social distancing. A recent informal survey shows a majority of Minnesota families had a bad experience with distance learning and want schools to resume in-person classes in the fall.
Courtesy of Austin Public Schools file

A new survey from the Minnesota Department of Education shows a majority of families had a bad experience with distance learning and want schools to resume in-person classes in the fall. But the results are just a sampling — and hardly scientific.

Over 64 percent of families who took the informal survey said they would feel comfortable sending their children back to in-person classes in the fall. Less than 12 percent of respondents said they would not feel comfortable sending their students back to school, the vast majority of whom cited public health concerns.

The survey release comes as state and national leaders ratchet up the rhetoric and pressure surrounding the decision to reopen schools. 

On Wednesday, President Trump threatened to withhold federal money from schools if they don’t fully reopen, and he called the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for reopening schools during the pandemic “impractical” and “expensive.”

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Still, the decision to reopen schools is one that rests with local and state leaders. And Minnesota officials have said they may not make a decision until the end of July. 

In the meantime, they’ve instructed Minnesota districts to prepare for three different scenarios in the upcoming academic year: full-time in-person learning, full-time distance learning and a hybrid of those two options. 

But Gov. Tim Walz on Tuesday said he was struggling with which scenario to choose, adding he was less confident about a full return to the classroom this fall than he was even three weeks ago.

“To be very honest, the resurgence of COVID, especially in Arizona, Florida, Texas and some of the other states has asked us to go back and continue to gather more information,” Walz said. “I think our goal is to get as many students as we possibly can back into buildings, to do that in a safe manner.”

Minnesota leaders also say they are considering results from the newly released Education Department family school survey as they make decisions about resuming classes in September.

Over half of the 130,000 respondents to the survey said they’d had a bad or very bad experience with distance learning. The most common complaints included students not feeling empowered to work on their own, students experiencing mental health challenges due to the pandemic, and lessons that were hard to understand. 

But the survey is just a sample and not “truly scientific,” state officials acknowledge. The Education Department sent the questionnaire to superintendents and charter school leaders, who then shared it with their school communities. It was offered to K-12 families online from June 15 through July 6. 

The vast majority — over 80 percent — of respondents who identified themselves said they were white. That’s a percentage that’s not representative of Minnesota’s current K-12 population, which is closer to 64 percent white. 

The results, which do not proportionately represent families of color, are only part of the department’s outreach to the public. Department officials say they’re making other efforts to reach out to the public as they’re making plans for the upcoming school year. 

Minnesota’s statewide teacher union has weighed in on the survey results, as well as on officials’ three scenarios for restarting school in the fall. 

“There is currently no plan for opening schools that doesn’t come with trade-offs between safety, educational effectiveness and sustainability,” Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said in a statement.

“Continued distance learning is the safest option, but it doesn’t meet the educational needs of all students. The most educationally effective plan is in-person learning, but it requires big, unfunded changes in how schools operate and still comes with risk,” Specht added. “The hybrid plans are even more expensive and aren’t sustainable if educators are asked to double their workload with both distance and in-person learning.”

The teacher union president also expressed concern that student and educator health would be “sacrificed to an economy rigged to benefit the richest 1 percent.”

State Republican lawmakers have also chimed in the decision to reopen schools. In June, after state education and health officials told schools to prepare for three different scenarios to resume classes, Senate Majority leader Paul Gazelkad, R-East Gull Lake, called the direction “as clear as mud,” and exhorted DFL Gov. Walz to let local school officials make their own decisions. 

“The governor can’t possibly make the best decision for every parent and child,” Gazelka said in an emailed statement in June. “Let the schools and the parents decide what’s best for their students.”

But on Thursday, after the Trump administration called for all classes to resume in person, Gazelka said he wanted to see students back in school buildings. 

“Getting kids back into the classroom this fall is essential. Let our local school leaders decide how best to accomplish this,” Gazelka said on Twitter