North Star Journey Live

In Focus: Learning in the time of COVID

A challenging school year lies ahead in Minnesota, a state that ranks as one of the country’s worst when it comes to inequality in educational outcomes between white students and their BIPOC peers. Schools are facing significant staffing shortages as the COVID-19 delta variant spreads, while families must cope with the continued impact of the pandemic on their finances, social lives and mental health. 

As many students and educators return to the physical classroom for the first time since the pandemic began, how can we work together to prevent Minnesota’s disparities in educational outcomes from worsening? What challenges do students, parents and educators face after a prolonged period of distance learning, and how do we address them in a way that works toward equity and inclusion?

MPR News host Angela Davis moderated our latest In Focus event, a conversation with parents, teachers and advocates about navigating the transition back to in-person learning.


Natalia Benjamin was named the Education Minnesota Teacher of the Year in 2021. She teaches high school ethnic studies and multilingual learners at Century High School in Rochester. She is dually licensed in K-12 ESL and reading and holds a master's degree in language acquisition and teaching. She advocates for multilingual and multicultural education and is part of the Facing Inequities and Racism in Education — Racial Equity Advocates (FIRE-REA) program, where she has worked on cultural competency trainings. She is a member of several organizations that support teachers and students: Education Minnesota League of Latinx Educators, Employees of Color Resource Group and Rochester Education Association for her district, and the Women Issues Committee for the National Education Association. 

Michael V. Walker directs the Office of Black Student Achievement for the Minneapolis Public Schools. His work is focused on youth development and assisting Black youth to achieve success. He earned his undergraduate degree in physical education from Southwest Minnesota State University and his master’s degree in counseling from the University of Wisconsin – River Falls as well as his administrative and superintendent license from St. Cloud State University. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota in organizational leadership, policy, and development. Walker is a product of Minneapolis Public Schools.

Katy Armendariz started Minnesota CarePartner (MNCP), a mental health and chemical health agency, in 2014. The agency provides culturally responsive and trauma-informed support to children and families. She saw a need for in-home mental health services by BIPOC providers who not only represent but also belong to the community. Armendariz was a civil rights commissioner for Ward 12 in Minneapolis, served on the board of directors for the Minnesota Trauma Project and was for a short time the cultural outreach chair of the Ramsey County Children’s Mental Health Collaborative. She received the Outstanding Service Award from the Minnesota Association for Children’s Mental Health in 2016. Armendariz is in recovery herself and commits her life to community-based healing and recovery on a broader level through policy efforts to dismantle the very systems that create the need for services like MNCP’s. 

In Focus is a series of convenings we are committed to leading on Minnesota’s persistent racial disparities. Through conversations with community leaders that are shaped by our curious, engaged audience, we hope to encourage new connections and relationships that will help Minnesota communities make progress toward equity and inclusion. 

If you have thoughts or questions about the event or this month’s topic, check out the MPR News In Focus page for different ways to share your experience.

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