Supporting ELs, Students with Special Needs, and Student Mental Health During Distance Learning: Lessons from Minnesota

Supporting ELs, Students with Special Needs, and Student Mental Health During Distance Learning: Lessons from Minnesota

Guest post by Krista Kaput, Research Director, EdAllies

Minnesota—along with 47 other states—has closed its school buildings for the remainder of the school year, elevating the importance of strong, equitable distance learning plans.

To better understand how schools are approaching this reality and meeting the needs of underserved populations, EdAllies analyzed the distance learning plans of 61 Minnesota districts and 30 Minnesota charter schools, honing in on those with the largest low-income student populations.

Top Concerns

In our analysis, we focused on the top concerns voiced in a recent community survey of students, families, and educators. Minnesotans are concerned about how historically underserved students will have their needs met during distance learning. And while we found that some districts and charter schools have not done enough to ensure continuous, high-quality support, others are implementing promising approaches to meet students’ needs.

Students with Special Needs

The vast majority of schools and districts addressed in their plans how they would meet the needs of their students with special needs. However, there was wide variation in the amount of detail, ranging from general language to detailed action plans:

  • At one St. Paul charter school with a Hmong language and culture focus, Community School of Excellence, students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) will receive face-to-face instruction via Zoom or Google Meet. Their plan sets the expectation that these meetings align with IEP service minutes.
  • Similarly, another Twin Cities charter, Excell Academy, describes in their plan how teachers will upload videos and lessons that align to the student’s IEP goals, as well as low-tech options for students who cannot access materials required for an online lesson.

English Learners

About two-thirds of the plans we analyzed described how they would support English Learners (ELs)—but again with wide variation in specificity and quality. One stand out was the Rochester Public School District, where English Language teachers will host weekly conferences with ELs on their caseloads, have ongoing conversations with families, integrate technology to support English Learners, and collaborate regularly with general education teachers.

Mental Health Supports

Minnesota students have faced disruption in many areas of their lives. It’s vital that, in addition to supporting students academically, schools also address students’ social-emotional and mental health needs. This was a stronger aspect of the distance learning plans we reviewed: about half of schools and districts specify that students would have access to counselors, and even more provide other types of mental health support. With schools closed for the remainder of this academic year, it is essential that schools work to address this now, and not simply wait until school buildings reopen.

Plans in Action

Schools need to take a collaborative approach to learning and improving their support—staying grounded in research and best practices and adapting based on feedback from students and families. Because distance learning is largely new to educators and families alike, it’s imperative that schools continue to foster ongoing communication with parents and students in order to meet their needs.

From our conversations with families and educators, we have heard ongoing frustration with the lack of devices, internet access, and translated resources for families whose first language isn’t English. Addressing these baseline issues must come first, followed by ongoing efforts to build toward effective academic and student supports to minimize and recover learning loss.

In the coming months, it will be critical to elevate and replicate what’s working to ensure students are receiving the best education possible, particularly with all of the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming academic year.

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