Christa Mims, left, and Adriana Cerrillo, right, are running for an open school board seat that represents downtown and parts of southwest Minneapolis. Credit: Photo collage: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

The coronavirus pandemic has reshaped nearly every aspect of our lives—and this fall, it’s in every race on the ballot. For many families, no issue is more pressing than schooling. Perhaps the biggest challenge the Minneapolis school board will face this coming year is whether and how to open school buildings at all.

Though teachers, parents, and students report distance learning has improved from its first iteration this spring, the transition to online schooling has left some students behind. It’s a problem with racial disparities on both ends: Students of color are more likely to face challenges with remote learning. Yet families of color are warier of returning to in-person learning, as they’re more likely to suffer the worst consequences of the coronavirus—including higher rates of illness and death in children.

With no end to the pandemic in sight—in fact, local health officials warn it is rapidly getting worse—Sahan Journal asked Minneapolis school board candidates how they plan to navigate the coronavirus crisis and its impacts on students of color.

In District 4, which represents downtown and southwest Minneapolis, Adriana Cerrillo and Christa Mims are running for an open seat. (Bob Walser, the incumbent, did not stand for reelection.)

Adriana Cerrillo is a community organizer and family advocate. Originally from Mexico, she lived in Florida for many years. There, she helped start a nonprofit focused on empowering the Latino community. In Minnesota, she has organized for immigrant rights and youth advocacy, and worked with the Minnesota Parent Union to provide individual support to families in Minneapolis schools. She became the guardian of her nephew, an Emerson Spanish Immersion fifth grader, after her sister-in-law left the country because of immigration problems. 

Christa Mims is a social worker for Hennepin County, where she leads teams to reduce racial disparities in education. She also works with education-support services for young people involved in the county system through foster care, probation, children’s mental health, and teen parent programs. Mims has directed an English language school at a community college, and currently serves on the board of the Domestic Abuse Project.

The District 4 seat will appear on the ballots in downtown and parts of southwest Minneapolis. All Minneapolis voters will have the opportunity to vote on the at-large seat, where the candidates are Kim Ellison and Michael Dueñes. You can read about those candidates here

What do you think COVID-19 has revealed about the challenges and opportunities facing our education system?

Cerrillo: “What COVID actually reveals is the reality of leaving communities of color behind,” she said. “The opportunity we have is to truly bring forward policies to address those inequities.” 

She’s seen those inequities firsthand as a family advocate, working one-on-one with families of Minneapolis students, providing support at parent-teacher conferences and connecting them with resources. She’s also seen them as the guardian of her nephew, who attends fifth grade at Emerson Spanish Immersion School. That experience provides her with a connection and perspective many board members don’t have, she said.

Cerrillo noted that the legislature hasn’t fully funded Minneapolis schools, which presents challenges beyond the school board’s scope. “It doesn’t matter what policies are brought forward,” she said. “It has to do with resources.”

Mims: “I think the pandemic really highlighted some of the truths we already knew about how inequitable resource distribution was, and how communication was not accessible for families,” Mims said. The hardships many people experience in their daily lives are now being compounded by the pandemic. “All that results in less access to education and less ability to support their kids in their education.”

For many families of color, education options in the pandemic have presented a double-edged sword. Parents of color are warier of sending their kids back to in-person learning because the risks of the virus affect their communities more. At the same time, students of color are less likely to be well-served by remote learning. 

How would you balance these competing concerns: health vs. successful instruction?

Cerrillo: “We’re in a catch-22,” she said. She is still in communication with many families she worked with as a family advocate, and listens to their concerns. 

Some parents say they would not send their child back to a school building now. But some say they at least want the option of hybrid learning, because their children are falling behind or have special education needs.

She also observes the experience of her fifth-grade nephew. “It’s not only my perspective and view as an adult,” she said. “I’m listening to him. He wants to go back.” 

Still, she’s concerned about the feasibility of reopening safely with limited resources. “As a district, we don’t have the money to equip our schools and to be safe.” If Minneapolis had the resources of some suburban districts, it would be “absolutely beautiful” to provide families an opportunity to return at least on a hybrid basis, she said. “But unless we have a vaccine, I feel like that’s not going to be the case.”

Mims: “I think that is the crisis of the moment,” Mims said. In her job at Hennepin County, she spends her days figuring out how to support kids whose needs are not being met by their schools. Lots of people are desperate for in-person services, she said. But safely planning  visits to students’ homes, for instance, presents logistical and health challenges.

It’s critical, Mims added, to make sure information is truly accessible: translated into different languages and communication channels beyond surveys and phone calls, which don’t reach all families. Many families she works with don’t have regular access to these channels that school districts traditionally use, so they don’t get all the messages from their schools. 

Some community agencies are also working to support learning pods for less affluent families, she said. “I think there are a lot of ways we can creatively try to support families, but we also need to let families choose what’s safe for their kids or for themselves,” she said. “I don’t think there’s any perfect solution right now.

What factors would you consider in deciding whether and how to bring students back into buildings?

Cerrillo: The voices of families would be the most important factor, she said, as well as the views of teachers and administrators. “The district can implement certain policies, but at the end of the day, we as families need to make those decisions,” she said. 

Cerrillo sits on Emerson’s site council, where families and teachers are discussing how to navigate the risks and realities of the coronavirus as a school community. Conversations like this could be a model for the district, she said.

“To me, the system in the district is not going to save us,” she said, noting her background in community organizing and activism. “My approach is more grassroots-oriented.”

Mims: “We need to follow health and safety guidelines from our state and federal government,” she said. “The other piece is I think we really have to prioritize the kids that need more support.” That means prioritizing in-person services for students in special education or English language learner programs. Other high priority students? Kids who don’t have a safe or stable place to study or access to the internet, and children of essential workers, who can’t stay home with their kids.

Some experts are concerned that COVID-19 and distance learning could exacerbate achievement and opportunity gaps, which are already quite large in Minneapolis. As a board member, how would you make sure that students of color and English language learners are well-served during distance learning? 

Cerrillo: As a board member, Cerrillo said she would meet with families, teachers, and staff at all District 4 schools, across downtown and parts of southwest Minneapolis. 

At Emerson, the PTA has been discussing how to support students who are behind. In collaboration with the social worker, the PTA has been contacting different institutions like the University of Minnesota and community colleges to recruit students and community leaders to volunteer as tutors. This grassroots approach could be an example for the rest of the district.

“The job of every board of directors should be to be present and engaging with every single family,” she said. “Otherwise nothing’s going to change because it hasn’t worked and it’s not working.”

Mims: Community engagement will be key to ensure families and students feel they are making progress, she said. Teachers need support, too. While they’ve been using new methods to reach students, it’s not clear they’re engaging actively with all students. Taking and listening to feedback from families about the support they need is important, Mims said.

“I also think we’re in an opportunity right now where we can really think creatively about how we deliver education,” she said. “Possibly this is the time where we can bring different types of change that might serve our young people better than they were experiencing within our traditional classrooms.”

What steps will you take to address these gaps once students are able to come back in person?

Cerrillo: She’d focus on student resources first, she said. For example, she would like to add “specialists” in schools, which she defines as teachers who float from classroom to classroom providing one-on-one support. “That should be something we are investing in heavily,” she said. 

It’s also important to make sure each school has a family liaison who can do community engagement full time. The district should prioritize investment in schools that need it most, she said.

Mims: “We have to prioritize the needs of kids that are not getting access to the resources that they need,” Mims said. That’s a process that should be happening now, she said, and should have started long ago. At the county, she’s always looking for resources that can help support these same young people to make sure they are not falling behind and can be successful when they return to school. The school board, Mims said, should do the same.

Declining enrollment has been a challenge at MPS for some time, especially for students of color—and that may be exacerbated by distance learning. 

What would you do as a board member to bring back students who may have fallen off the grid or switched schools during distance learning?

Cerrillo: “We need to make our schools a place all our families want to be part of,” Cerrillo said. Part of that is climate and respect: As a family advocate, she noticed in some schools that families were not even acknowledged with a “good morning.” Funding is another factor. 

“How do we attract families back?” she said. “Making District 4 schools, and all Minneapolis public schools, places where children get a real equitable education.” That means access to resources, one-on-one support, and therapists. She plans to be engaged with families and the administration, like continuing her weekly volunteer role at Emerson, to keep a direct connection to the schools.

Mims: “Many people have left the school district because they don’t feel they are valued, they don’t feel schools are a welcoming environment, they don’t feel their child is receiving a rigorous education,” she said. “Those are the things we have to address and fix in order to bring back students.”

Community engagement and rebuilding trust will be key here, to “listen and share power whenever possible,” Mims said. “Give students and families an opportunity to name the solutions that would help them.” Focusing on improving the academic experience is important, too. 

Bringing students back to a school building during a pandemic is expensive. Distance learning can also be expensive. How do you think the school board can use district funds to support students and teachers both through distance learning and as they return to school buildings?

Cerrillo: Teachers and staff need more support, she said: Some are leaving the district. “We need to ensure that we are paying our teachers what they deserve,” she said. “When we come back, we need to ensure the people who work in the buildings are well taken care of.”

At Emerson, she said, the school distributed some funding to teachers. “We’re doing the work the district is not doing,” she said. “So how do we elevate that?”

The district will also need to listen to voices of teachers to make sure they are mentally and emotionally ready to return to a school setting, she said.

Mims: Allocating resources will be a complex challenge for the school board, Mims said. “I think we need to invest in our youth of color that are experiencing the highest burden during this time.”  That means making sure they have access to mental health resources and social workers—in-person, if it’s safe, or virtually. “I think that is something we cannot even consider cutting,” she said.

It will be difficult to decide how to best use funds to make sure schools are providing the best possible academic opportunities. That will mean figuring out how to manage costs so the district can invest in its most important resources. “I think we have to support our youth, we have to support our teachers, we have to support our school staff,” she said. 

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...