Thank you, Edina Parents 4 Progress

Linnea Shively, page editor

Earlier this month, Edina Parents 4 Progress (EP4P) sent an open letter to the Edina Public School Board demanding that more significant action be taken to get students of all grade levels back in school, five days a week. Although I do not completely agree with all of their assertions, I, for one, would like to thank EP4P for being the sole organization advocating for the holistic well-being of EPS students—which was emphasized by the discussions from Monday’s unrecorded School Board work session. Intended as a way to present a report about returning to a hybrid model for secondary students, subsequent questions from school board members focused on the disadvantages of returning to a hybrid model; these questions undermined urgent concerns over deteriorating educational excellence in distance learning and alarming mental-health battles affecting isolated students.

I’m not going to yet again lay out all the statistics and reasons why distance learning doesn’t work. EP4P has already done that in recent updates to their website, and done it well. EP4P has made school board members aware of their concerns through repeatedly sending information through open letters. As a current senior, I’m not approaching the issue as an epidemiologist, but rather, I am attuned to the voices of students who are struggling and want the option to return to school full-time—the students who are currently being overlooked and ignored by the school board and EPS administration. 

In distance learning, it is impossible to maintain the same “excellence” in education which EPS claims to pride themselves on. During the Monday evening board meeting, Edina High School Principal Andrew Beaton asserted that the quality of education in both the distance learning and hybrid model this school year has been “excellent.” Where is his evidence for this claim? Science classes without labs are not truly “excellent.” Google Meets with a teacher speaking to a sea of icons, instead of faces, are not truly “excellent.” First semester grades are not yet available; but, with a majority of classes choosing to make summative assessments open notes, these grades are an inaccurate indicator of student progress.  

While there has been some excellent effort on the part of individual teachers, the way in which EPS has developed distance learning sets up their students to fail. On days when students do not attend live classes, class attendance is taken through attendance based assignments, or ABAs. Most of the time, these assignments just turn into busy work or lead to a certain class being mentally “checked off” for the day once attendance is taken. For many students struggling with motivation to complete school work and budgeting their time to do so, these ABAs discourage studying lessons or doing homework after they are turned in. After all, what’s the point of actually taking notes when most teachers have switched summative assessments to open-notes exams? Instead of understanding the intricacies of the material, EPS students are getting better at quickly searching the internet for answers. Additionally, EPS’s synchronous class expectations exacerbate one of the largest failures of distance learning—a lack of legitimate social interaction with peers and teachers. I’ve had teachers begging students to turn on their cameras or just unmute themselves to answer lecture questions. Even at the end of semester one, I was still receiving texts from friends who had just realized they didn’t know a certain student in their virtual class. The sole resource for teachers to facilitate student to student interaction, Google Meet breakout rooms, are infamous for muted microphones and still icons. 

On Monday’s board meeting Principal Beaton also acknowledged, “[You] can’t replicate [the] energy and culture [of classrooms] through a Google Meet.” Valley View Principal Shawn Dudley seemed to agree: the “magic of teaching is what happens in classrooms.” I also agree.  However, rather than reflect the sentiment of two of their Principals, the school board is completely ignoring the glaring benefits to in-person learning. To be clear, no one is forcing students who feel unsafe to return to the building, but students who want more in-person learning should not be forced into a distance learning model (or even a hybrid model, which still includes more virtual than face to face learning) if it does not work for them.

In addition to struggling educationally, students are suffering mentally and emotionally during extended periods of social isolation. Despite this, discussions during the Monday school board meeting focused overwhelmingly on what teachers needed, with little more than lip-service to student needs. Repeatedly, school board members expressed interest soliciting feedback from teachers about the challenges of returning to a hybrid model. Yet, the board was content to rely upon a survey from the summer of 2020 to determine the preferences of EPS families. After chaotic spring shutdowns and a lack of practical research into how the coronavirus spreads in school at the time, it is not surprising that, close to six months ago, the majority of parents indicated safety as the most important factor in a return to schools and expressed reservations about in-person learning. As parents were forced to watch their children struggle with extended periods of social isolation and the unresolved pitfalls of distance learning, past surveys likely do not accurately represent the current concerns and priorities of EPS families. The School Board’s refusal to solicit widespread input shows either irresponsibility or arrogance in thinking they know what is best for each individual student and family without putting in the effort to examine the current needs of EPS families. 

Soliciting feedback from students themselves is also clearly not a priority of the board or district. Board Member Ellen Jones was the first to seriously bring up student mental health issues, well over an hour into the meeting. Jones suggested a survey be sent to students in order to determine the mental health impact of the coronavirus on EPS students specifically. Her suggestion was at best ignored, and at worst minimized, when board member Matthew Fox suggested there was “no time for surveys.” I would prefer to use data directly from EPS students for my next points, but since the School Board refuses to follow through with the effort of surveying students, the following data can be a placeholder until the school board releases the results of student surveys. According to CDC studies from March 2020 through November 2020, “mental health-related hospital emergency department visits rose 24 percent for children ages 5 to 11 and 31 percent among adolescents ages 12 to 17, when compared to the same period in 2019.” As alarming as these statistics are, they only scratch the surface of the mental health emergency America’s students are facing. Symptoms of teen depression and issues with distance learning significantly overlap; these include, but are not limited to, difficulty concentrating, skipping classes, a sudden drop in grades, skewed sleep schedules, withdrawal from friends, and sadness or feelings of hopelessness. Not even a day after the school board meeting, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that there was little evidence that schools contribute to increased coronavirus transmission in communities. As long as schools follow safety precautions, schools are safe for students and teachers. If EPS has focused on anything in a return to hybrid model, it’s mitigation strategies for physical safety. Now that schools are physically safe for students, EPS must start focusing on the mental and emotional health of their students through a return to full-time, in-person school.

Yet, with only suggestions of future “robust” discussions covering student mental-health and returning to full-time in-person learning, getting EPS specific data from current students is unlikely. As Fox asserted, the reality of any learning model is that “someone sacrifices.” In this case, EPS is content to let students bear the brunt of this sacrifice in distance learning. Board member Julie Greene acknowledged that everyone has been “feeling crummy” throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Principal Beaton suggested expanding resources for parents to support “frustrated” teenagers. From my perspective as a current teenager, “feeling crummy” and “frustrated” shift blame on the moody teen stereotype and minimize the legitimate mental health concerns of EHS students. Board member Shaw advocated partnering with Edina Community Education to produce resources and classes to help parents support their teenagers, and South View Middle School Principal Tim Anderson continuously emphasized wellness support for teachers—but what about the students themselves? Given national statistics and an abundance of anecdotal stories about how students are suffering, what type of potentially tragic event will it take for EPS to start treating the mental health concerns of teenagers seriously and providing more than lip service and a few trivia nights? What happened to the recent campaign that mental health is just as important as physical health? Recently bringing students who struggled academically during distance learning back in person is a good step—but a baby step—towards supporting students struggling in silence and hidden behind good grades.

Additionally, recent recommendations from the Minnesota Department of Health encourage school districts to incorporate “a student counterpart(s) to the COVID-19 program coordinator role to reflect the student experience.” Who is this student counterpart for EPS? At the same meeting, multiple board members praised the Student Equity Solutions event, where teams of students are encouraged to research and present ideas on improving racial equity within the EPS district. Is student input on their educational experience during the coronavirus pandemic not important enough to provide a similar platform?

Despite the grave consequences distance learning has on students’ mental health, the school board and administration made it clear on Monday evening that they are not seriously considering, or perhaps even entertaining, a return to full-time, in-person learning this school year. Instead, their overemphasis on the challenges of hybrid—rather than discussing the benefits—led to Board Chair Erica Allenburg expressing her fear that a switch to hybrid learning now would only force greater disruption in a hypothetical future return to distance learning.  Instead of planning for a transition to full-time learning, the school board is using fear to justify a significant gap in their planning.

Although HEPA air filters have been added to every elementary classroom across the district, they have only been added to secondary classrooms if requested by an individual teacher. Is it possible that EPS sees no need to proactively install these filters in secondary schools because it does not intend to allow even the option of returning to full-time, in-person learning this spring? Rather than focusing on what can bring us all back—or at least those who choose to return—the district is focusing on expanding the scope of distance learning. During the board meeting, Assistant Superintendent Dr. Randy Smasal introduced an expansion of the Edina Virtual Academy for the 2021-2022 school year, which will provide over sixty online classes for EHS students. With vaccine distribution for teachers underway and a new school year still eight months away, the time and resources spent on developing EVA would be better spent on meeting the urgent needs of this year’s students. A greater focus on improving distance learning indicates that district leaders and the school board have essentially given up on the current school year, and that the concerns of those who want to return to full-time in-person learning this spring have been swept under the rug—and are no longer even a consideration. 

So, I end where I began, thanking EP4P for being the only group recognizing the urgency of the situation and advocating for the holistic needs of students by demanding the option to return to full-time, in-person learning. Thank you for realizing there is more to the story than the Minnesota Department of Health numbers and that discussions regarding the “safety” of returning students to school must include serious consideration of students’ mental and emotional health needs—far more consideration than the Edina School Board or District Administration has been willing to give.

I was not prompted nor encouraged to write this by any member of Zephyrus, the EHS administration, or the Edina faculty. I individually elected to participate in the writing process and approached the Zephyrus Editorial Board of their own volition, thus only reflecting the opinion of myself.