Sharon El-Amin, left, and KerryJo Felder, right, are running for a north Minneapolis school board seat. 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.

The Minneapolis Board of Education comprises nine directors who serve four-year terms, plus a student representative who serves a one-year term. The board sets the vision and policies, and oversees an $885 million budget for a district of about 35,000 students and 6,000 staff. It also votes on plans for distance learning and funding for pandemic-related expenses.

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 north Minneapolis, Sharon El-Amin and KerryJo Felder are running for the District 2 seat.

Sharon El-Amin, a longtime north Minneapolis resident, former business owner, and member of the North High site council, currently works in the finance division of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office.

KerryJo Felder is running for her second term, after first winning election to the school board in 2016. She’s also been active at North High, graduating in 1991 from the school’s Summatech program and helping to prevent the school’s closure before she was elected to the board. She also works as an organizer for the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation.

The District 2 seat will appear on the ballots of north Minneapolis voters. All voters in Minneapolis 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. We’ll be looking at the final contested race, which covers parts of southwest Minneapolis, later this week. 

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

El-Amin: The African American community in north Minneapolis already bears the brunt of many disparities, she said—and COVID has compounded them.” You have parents who are switching gears from being parents to now the teachers,” she said. “Parents are the first teachers. But when it’s required of you every day, I think it’s a huge challenge for us.” 

Some families of five or six live in one- or two-bedroom apartments, she said, and it’s been a challenge to create a space for children to learn and focus. “School gave us a safe place to send our children in a structured setting,” she said. For some parents, learning the new technology to support their children has been a challenge too. “It’s a learning process for all of us,” El-Amin said.

Felder: “I think it’s made very clear the disparities that were there all the while and how we’re lagging behind in our technology in MPS,” Felder said. She hopes COVID-19 draws people’s attention to funding gaps. If the state legislature fully funded public schools, she said, the district would be in a different place. “If we’d been doing that all along, we wouldn’t be where we are.” 

When she first joined the board, the district faced a $33 million deficit. “We’re moving the dial on that, but it’s not without a cost,” she said. “It’s painful. The money has to come from somewhere. It comes out of programming, it comes out of the classroom. It really affects everything. And we try not to pull too much out of every pile, every dish, but you have to. And it just makes the communities of color suffer more.”

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?

El-Amin: “I think it comes down to the safety of the schools,” El-Amin said. All schools should have a safety procedure in place, with hand sanitizer, masks, and a cleanliness plan. Students also need to be able to be spaced safely in classrooms, the lunchroom, and hallways. The district should be identifying and working on those steps now, El-Amin added, for when schools open. 

“If I don’t feel safe when I walk into that space, I’m not going to send my child into that space,” she said. A safe environment for children will also be a safe environment for staff, she said. 

Felder: The district, Felder noted, has been sharing an online survey to ask families how they want to proceed. Her perception so far is that while students are feeling a lack of engagement across the board, it’s hitting younger kids hardest. And while most families now have access to computers and the internet, some kids have to share their devices with their siblings. Or they may have four computers connected to one hotspot with a weak connection. 

Educational inequity now manifests in the home, Felder said. If parents are working from home, they have to balance their own job with helping their kids. If they’re going into work, they have to make sure their kids have someone to supervise them—and that that person can help the kids with schoolwork. And if parents aren’t working, that can provide additional financial stresses at home. 

For some families, even accessing food can be an issue, though the district has been doing well providing food for kids at home, she said. “There were just so many hurdles for our families,” she said. “And then we also have our ELL students and special education students who need the extra care.” 

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

El-Amin: Implementing safety measures would be a priority, including hand sanitizing stations throughout the schools, masks, and a process for sanitizing all school areas. More push doors instead of door handles would help, too, she said.That’s what would make her feel safe as a parent. 

Her oldest grandson just graduated from North High, and she has another at Franklin Middle School. “I think about little boys and how they play around and what they do. It’s really very scary,” she said. “While I know it’s critical for our children to get back in school, I also know it’s critical to put some key safety measures in place. It can end up being detrimental to our communities.”

Felder: “Number one, it’s got to be the parents’ choice,” she said. “Number two, we have to have not only the space but ample sanitizing products available.” That means masks, sprayable disinfectant, hand sanitizer, soaps. “We have to be very, very thorough about that if we’re going to bring them back into the schools.” 

Some educational support professionals, teachers, and principals are willing to come back—and some are not, she said. The district should recognize that teaching in person is a dangerous job and provide hazard pay for the lowest paid staff, she said. 

Some educators may be willing to go into homes or meet students in person. These interventions will require a collective effort, yet need to be done on an individual basis, she added. 

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? 

El-Amin: Communication is key, she said: Board members should be communicating with school leaders to learn what each school needs and make sure families are receiving information in the language that’s best for them. 

“As a board member it is my responsibility to tap into the leadership within the school, and see how I can be of help with the services that are needed within your school,” she said.

Felder: Bringing the community in could help bridge some gaps, she said, and the district hasn’t done that to the best of its ability. For example, “We don’t have enough language speakers inside of MPS, but we have the whole community to learn from,” she said. 

Some families are creating learning pods for their students: an example of how building community can alleviate stress, she said. “I applaud them,” she said. “By reaching out to the community and doing those different pieces, we can work with the students much better.” 

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

El-Amin: For El-Amin, this process will depend on strong relationships. This starts with board members knowing school leaders, teachers, and families, and learning more about each student’s needs. If a child is behind in reading, for example, the district should provide resources for extra tutoring or one-on-one support. “This is the time for us to get us to really get to know our children individually,” she said. “COVID has allowed a lot of space for that.” 

More tutoring and classes before or after school can help close gaps, she added. Community partnerships can help, too. “But if you don’t build a relationship with the family, if you don’t build a relationship with the child, how do you know what they need?” 

Felder: Pushing for fully funded schools at the state legislature is key, she said. The district starts out with a deficit every year because the legislature doesn’t fully fund English language learning and special education programs. 

The district should also be thinking about how to engage students more now. “From kindergarten to 12th grade we have students who are not engaged,” she said. “Our teachers need to have time to sit down and figure out what each student needs at this moment in time. Some kids are eating up the whole computer thing. And some are not.”

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?

El-Amin: The district’s community engagement team should be getting out into the community and asking families why they chose to leave. “We cannot address the situation if we don’t know the issue behind it,” she said. As a board member, she’d want to know the plan for community engagement, how the district is compiling family feedback, and what school leaders are doing with that information. 

Felder: It’s going to take a major effort that will involve knocking on doors, flyers, and talking to parents, she said. The Comprehensive District Design, which the board passed in the spring—Felder voted against it—created new boundaries to schools that Felder calls “downright racist and classist.” So she wants to address that. 

Some Northside students are being sent to schools in northeast and south Minneapolis. “Our schools fail because we have to hold those schools up,” she said. The number of charter schools in north Minneapolis is also drawing students away, she said. Parents at every school should know “that they own that school,” she said, and they can help make changes.

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?

El-Amin: Some funds should be used for resources to help families and teachers navigate the new digital teaching model. That includes wi-fi and technical training for staff and families. “Those are skills and those are classes that actually need to be available for parents, students, and staff,” she said.

Felder: Sanitation and busing needs will need a lot of funding, she said. Staffing will also be complicated: “I don’t believe in forcing you to send your child to school, and I don’t believe in forcing you to go to work,” Felder said. 

The district should also use funds to pay the lowest-paid staff more. “A lot of times they are the bridge to the community in the classroom because we have so few teachers of color,” 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...