Michael Dueñes, left, and Kim Ellison, right, are running for an at-large Minneapolis school board seat. The race appears on every Minneapolis voter's ballot. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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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.

Kim Ellison, the incumbent school board chair, has served on the school board since 2012. She supported the Comprehensive District Design to address systemic racial inequities in the schools, which the board passed this spring. Her four children attended Minneapolis Public Schools.*

Michael Dueñes, a policy analyst and former dean of North Hennepin Community College, is challenging her for the seat. In the spring, he emerged as an outspoken critic of the Comprehensive District Design, saying it would disrupt education for many students of color. He joined the race after the board passed the plan. He is the parent of a South High student.

Dueñes and Ellison are competing for an at-large school board seat, which means this race appears on the ballot for every Minneapolis voter. Some Minneapolis voters will also have additional school board races on their ballots for their local school board district. We’ll be looking at those races later this week. 

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

Dueñes: “It exacerbated what we already knew with learning disparities, opportunity gaps, and the digital divide,” Dueñes said. While technology access has gone smoother this fall, some students still are struggling with hotspots with low bandwidth or devices that don’t work, he added. And he’s heard that at some schools, teachers, and young students are in front of a screen the whole day. “That’s not a best practice at all.” He supports the teachers union’s call for one day a week of asynchronous teaching.

Ellison: “I think it’s revealed what we’ve always known: that our students of color and poor families have fewer opportunities within our system,” Ellison said. Still, in the upheaval, Ellison sees an opportunity to rethink schooling and create a more equitable system. “We were not serving students of color well before the pandemic,” she said. “This is our opportunity to examine different ways of serving our students that we can carry over once the pandemic passes.”

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?

Dueñes: “We’re blessed to be in a metro region with a strong health care system and health care researchers,” Dueñes said. I think the school district and the teachers union need to work with these public health professionals”—in order to identify and follow best practices. “I think that goes a long way toward assuring families.” 

In communities of color like his (Dueñes is Mexican American), preexisting conditions like diabetes are common, and many children grow up in multigenerational households where elders could be at risk from the virus, he said. One key in old Minneapolis school buildings will be to consider air quality in the work environment. “Is it a healthy building or is it going to be recirculating dirty air?” he asked. 

Finally, the district also needs to improve communication with multilingual families, he said. While the district recently sent out a survey about learning preferences in multiple languages, all its supporting documentation was in English.

Ellison: “What I’m hearing from families and principals is we weren’t serving families of color well in school,” Ellison said. “I’ve had several principals report that things are actually going better for students that were struggling in the classroom. But remote learning isn’t going well for any of our students, especially students of color, because of other needs that families have.” 

Parents of color are more likely to hold essential jobs without an option for remote work, she noted. This adds to the burden of caring for children during the school day and helping them with schoolwork. “As a district I believe we need to be partnering with some of the other agencies throughout town that do have space and can safely take care of children,” she said. 

For instance, Migizi, a Native American organization that hosts afterschool programs—and that lost its building during the fires this summer—wants to create a space for students, she said. Libraries are another option. “There’s space. There’s adults. We need to be asking libraries to open so families can drop off students. They’re still doing remote learning but in a space that’s safe with people who can help.”

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

Dueñes: “What are public health professionals saying?” Dueñes said. “What is the teachers union saying? There’s all these sets of worker safety requirements that need to be met. Sitting down with the district and just saying, How do we make this work, together, given this reality? That’s what I need to be able to feel safe about sending my kid back to school.” 

If teachers and other union members in the school building agree it’s safe, Dueñes will feel it’s safe. He’d also like to see a clear plan for how to communicate about an infection in a building and keep the community updated—including those who don’t speak English. “Really, it’s bringing in the public health professionals to sit with the district and the unions to map out what’s a safe way to bring students back into the building.”

Ellison: “Safety needs to be the first thing we consider. But then it’s the needs of the students. Our special ed students are suffering heavily right now,” Ellison said. In the classroom, these students receive extra support. “So we need to think about how to get special ed students in the building.” 

Early learners—including kindergarten, first, and second grades—are another priority, she said. “They are still learning how to learn: What does school look like? I think we need to figure out how to get our youngest learners in the building.” 

Transitional grades also need a path back into school buildings, she said. “Our sixth graders and our ninth graders have never been in middle school or high school before.” The district should consider infection rates in the area, which could be determined by neighborhood, she said. Masks, sanitation, and space for social distancing would be critical, which might mean having class in gyms or auditoriums. 

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? 

Dueñes: “We know that support staff and having wraparound services in the building improves student performance retention and academic success,” Dueñes said. During a pandemic, those staff could pivot to finding creative ways to reach students and their families at home to provide support services. 

Knowing someone cares can make a big difference in student engagement—which is one of the most important factors for student retention and success, he said.

Ellison: “Again, we were not serving students of color well before the pandemic,” Ellison said. “We don’t have to go back to normal because it wasn’t working for some of our students of color anyway. So I’d like to see us focus on best practices with what’s working.” 

Some principals say remote learning is working for their students, she noted. “So what about this is working? What are those practices we can expand on? There needs to be an intentional focus on our English language learners, our students of color, our special-ed students, students that we know have other hurdles to overcome. This can be an opportunity for us to rethink how we deliver instruction for some of our struggling students.”

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

Dueñes: “There’s going to be a lot” to deal with, he noted: the traumas of a pandemic, social isolation, the George Floyd uprising, and riots. “How do we really help them come back and feel supported so they can begin the process of learning and processing? In the past, kids would have been able to process a lot of this at schools, had talking sessions with their classroom. Student support would have come, knowing they’re withdrawing or acting out.” 

That type of response could be in place when students come back if the district hires more support staff and counselors, he said. That way, teachers can focus on teaching, students can focus on learning, and support staff can support students so they are able to learn. 

Ellison: “We need to be intentional now to make sure that those gaps don’t increase,” Ellison said. When schools first closed, the district knew some households didn’t have access to computers or the internet. “I’m proud the district has been working closely with the city and state in addition to providing hotspots for families that don’t have access to wifi, but we need to continue working on it,” she said. “I think this is not just a wave, but a way we’re going to be living for a while.” 

The district can find ways to strengthen these partnerships with the city and state, and also provide additional support, she said. They’ll also need to listen to students and families who say distance learning didn’t work and don’t want to come back. They’ll need to continue the “strong relationship between home and school by making sure they do have devices, that they can access internet even though they’re back in the building,” she said.

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?

Dueñes: “One of my main priorities if I do get elected is to really begin figuring out why families have left the district,” Dueñes said. “What can we do to bring those families back and what can we do to retain the families we have now?” 

Support staff could reach out to families to find out why students aren’t coming to school, he said—whether they are absent, going to another school, or having technology problems. They could also identify issues with housing or food insecurity. He suspects some of the problems with enrollment decline stem from unmet demand for language immersion programs, K–8 schools, and Montessori schools. “We seem to have more than enough demand to expand immersion across the district,” he said. 

Changes from the Comprehensive District Design may make that more difficult, he said. “Our south Minneapolis families who are Latino are going to have to go a lot farther now to stay in immersion learning. Are they going to drive a shorter distance to Richfield or go across the city?” 

Ellison: “We’ve been looking at our enrollment. We know that 80 percent of students that leave are families of color, and then we know why, so we need to be addressing that,” Ellison said.  Schools are not meeting their needs and providing the right kinds of support, with or without a pandemic, she said. 

“But then there’s also talk about access to programming or high quality teachers or just knowing that we don’t have some of the opportunities that are provided within other schools,” she said. “And that’s exactly why we did the Comprehensive District Design.” The plan, which hasn’t been implemented yet, will provide students of color with more school choice and a more well-rounded education throughout the district, she said.

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?

Dueñes: “A lot of things keep changing in the budget without a clear explanation. I need clear numbers,” he said. Dueñes has noticed some discrepancies in how the district presents budget numbers. “Do we have enough to address what we know is going to be expensive?” 

Teachers unions, support staff, and building principals should also help identify needs for funding, he said. Transparency in the budget and clear communication is key. For distance learning now, the teachers union and principals have suggested what students need. The board should also be hearing directly from families about their needs, he said. 

Saved costs from transportation could potentially be reallocated, but he says the budget numbers he’s seen haven’t added up. 

Ellison: “Both the state and the federal government have made additional funds available for distance learning because of the pandemic,” Ellison said. “Again, it’s priorities.” To Ellison and the rest of the current board, she said, those priorities are academics and social-emotional supports for students. They’ve allocated funds for at-home counseling. 

Since transportation funding demands are down, those can be reallocated to support students. “I think it’s how we can get students back into schools. Without that, how do we provide one-on-one or one-on-small-group support for families and students? Maybe it’s getting adults to homes: district staff members to homes to support families and students learning.” 

Presently, the district is sending out surveys : so families can voice their needs. Maybe families need more devices for their children. Maybe they don’t know where to turn when their student doesn’t understand something. “We can imagine these are some of the possibilities,” Ellison said. “It’s more impactful if families are able to tell us.”

*Clarification: This sentence has been changed to specify that while all four of Kim Ellison’s children attended MPS, they did not all graduate from district schools.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.