U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (DFL-Minn.) recently hosted a conference call with Breckenridge Public Schools Superintendent Diane Cordes and other area education leaders to discuss how the state could provide equitable attention and opportunities to Greater Minnesota schools.
Included in the Friday, Jan. 29 call were Executive Director of Lakes Country Service Cooperative Jeremy Kovash and superintendents Jeff Drake of Fergus Falls Public Schools, Phil Jensen of Hawley Public Schools and Brandon Lunak of Moorhead Public Schools.
“There is important work that needs to be done for schools, and I will say I have become obsessed with this piece of it,” Klobuchar said. “... When I think about things we should be doing immediately, it’s getting our schools back open, and I know some of your schools have been open the entire time or open 50 percent, but I think we all know it just depends sometimes on the luck of the draw.”
Klobuchar said a consistent problem throughout the pandemic has been access to broadband, an issue she has championed as the co-chair of the Senate Broadband Caucus. Nationwide, 25 percent of students do not have full access to broadband.
“That’s been a problem obviously before we had the pandemic. Some kids are better able to access internet services,” Klobuchar said.
Despite access challenges, Kovash said for the most part, the area is flourishing.
“To brag a little bit about our region, we’ve done really well,” Kovash said. “Our region tests better than other regions of the state of Minnesota, and of course, Minnesota is the top state in the country for education, and we are among the top regions in Minnesota for multiple reasons.”
Kovash said when schools began closing last spring, Lakes Country Service Cooperative made networking groups to discuss solutions to different problems for schools in the region.
Their weekly meetings and camaraderie were what made the groups so successful, Kovash said. For instance, when Parkers Prairie, Minnesota, said they were experiencing broadband issues, a networking group was able to send a local phone company to the town to put up free WiFi hotspots around the community, he said.
While it was a success story for some, Kovash said the quick efforts may not have reached those that needed them most. Some of the most impoverished and needy families in Parkers Prairie may not even have the transportation to get to the hotspots.
“One of the things we’re worried about coming out of the pandemic is the achievement gap widening,” Kovash said.
Drake of Fergus Falls Public Schools said they also have no sense of the learning loss that has occurred since last spring. He said they are in the process of their mid-year achievement evaluation at the schools, and the results are bleak.
“In a typical year, at the end of the first quarter when we would take a snapshot of students’ grades, in a population of approximately 680 students, we would have seen about 120-130 failing grades. At our midterms last October, we had about 700 failing grades at that point,” Drake said. “It really highlights the struggles our students had even under a hybrid learning model.”
Contributing to the crisis are the mental health issues plaguing students across the country who can no longer see their friends, be involved in activities, or experience milestones like attending prom and graduating.
Cordes, who was a school counselor before moving into administrative roles, said her concern for Breckenridge students’ mental health has increased rapidly over the course of the pandemic.
Drake also has a background in school counseling and echoed Cordes’ thoughts. When the district surveyed parents of ninth through 12th grade students, 40 percent said they were concerned about their child’s emotional wellbeing, Drake said.
“I do think a barrier that’s going to linger for a long time is the trauma that our children have been through,” Cordes said.
After the pandemic ends, she said she would expect all students to score higher on the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES) test — which determines a child’s risk of developing disease later in life depending on childhood abuse, neglect or trauma. The higher the score, the higher the risk.
When Cordes talked to Breckenridge teachers of all grade levels, they each brought up mental health as one of their overarching concerns. But dealing with children’s declining mental health cannot fall on teachers.
“They (teachers) mentioned, ‘Please don’t make us be the ones to solve that problem in the classroom because we’re not trained to do that,’” Cordes said.
Unlike metro areas, rural communities lack widespread access to mental health resources. Breckenridge schools do have an agency trained to address mental health and illness, but a professional only comes to the campus for a few hours one day out of the week, Cordes said.
“It’s great if you have your mental health issue on Tuesday between 8 (a.m.) and 12 (p.m.) because that’s when the person is in the building … But that just isn’t how it works with mental health,” Cordes said.
Many of the issues come down to needing more funding, the superintendents said. Lunak of Moorhead Public Schools said their district went into deficit spending after using up the relief funds in the fall. While the relief dollars passed in December will help chip away at the debt from the fall, districts will continue to incur more expenses.
Funding could also be used to begin to address mental health in schools by giving districts the ability to hire counselors. In addition, relief funds could go toward increased transportation, which could make summer school programs and other opportunities available to students who are far away.
Klobuchar said she understands the schools’ needs, and she plans to bring the issues the superintendents covered to Washington D.C.
“I think the whole thing is getting these kids back, and, for the short-term, doing whatever we can to get the vaccine out,” Klobuchar said. “Putting the school personnel up front is really important, and planning for the summer, as you all are doing … and (bettering) the mental health services, which has come out loud and clear to me here.”