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When coronavirus upended students’ school year back in March, the grown-ups promised them it would be temporary. Soon they’d be back to normal: chatting with their friends, asking their teachers questions, going to biology labs and playing at recess. 

But the adults who promised to get the coronavirus under control failed, leaving kids’ education and social lives in an ongoing state of uncertainty and isolation.

Under health guidance from Governor Tim Walz, some school districts will be able to open in person for part-time or full-time instruction this fall. But some schools in other states have already closed abruptly, right after reopening, because of coronavirus outbreaks. In some Minnesota suburban districts, teachers have pushed back against their districts’ proposed plans for in-person instruction. And state officials have warned schools they will need to be prepared for change throughout the year.

As adults squabble over the best way to educate in a pandemic, we thought we’d turn to the people most affected by their decisions: the kids. We asked Minnesota students from immigrant families (including a few pairs of siblings) how distance learning went for them in the spring—and what they want to see this coming school year.

Again and again, they told us their priority was safety. But they miss being able to ask their teachers questions right away when they’re confused. They miss talking with their friends at recess, going on field trips, and sneaking out of study hall to make music. They want more support with tutoring and college applications. But they do not miss getting up early.

Mike Dawes, 16, Central High School, St. Paul

“I don’t know why it has to happen when I’m a kid. It happened right when I was trying to experience the world.” More

Sarah Sabrie, 13, Prairie Winds Middle School, Mankato

“It was less stressful because everything was right on the computer: all the resources that you needed.” More

Lay Lay, 17, Humboldt High School, St. Paul

“I have concerns for other immigrant families who are learning at home because they don’t speak English. So they can’t really help their kids.” More

Walter Cortina, 17, High School for Recording Arts, St. Paul

“It’s kind of depressing, to be honest. I’ve been in school for 12 years, so I really do want to walk that stage and get that diploma. It’s one of the most important things.” More

Suhaib Mohamud, 12, Capitol Hill Gifted and Talented Magnet School, St. Paul

“In gym, we have to send videos of ourselves exercising. In math, we just do more work.” More

Sumia Sabrie, 16, East High School, Mankato

“I would try to send emails to the teacher, and she would respond. But it would take a little longer than normal, because she would have other students who were also confused.” More

Saylia Moo, 17, Highland Park High School, St. Paul

“Spacewise, it’s so much easier to learn at school than at home. Because you’re in a space to learn, and at home you’re kind of…at home.” More

Amelie and Antonia Serbus, 7 and 10, Deephaven Elementary, Minnetonka

“Distance learning is my favorite thing, because I get to be with my family a lot. Sometimes my mom and my sister and me go on adventures.” More


Mike Dawes, 16, sophomore, Central High School, St. Paul

It was a total mess and nobody learned anything. Some kids decided to just cheat because all the assignments were online. We’d find the assignments and do them in like five minutes. We didn’t really learn much. Then you’d just do whatever you want. Go play video games, chat on social media. 

It was not at all like school. It was like summer vacation with a little homework.

For school you really need that face-to-face interaction for it to work. At least for me. 

They say they’re really gonna make it a better kind of learning experience. I’m not confident in their ability to do that, personally.

My whole life I’ve been wanting to be the cool high school kid in the movie. And now I’m not going to be able to have that experience. I don’t know how long this is going to last. It could be anywhere from a few months to, pessimistically, a year or two. It really does suck. It is just not how I expected any of this to go. I don’t know why it has to happen when I’m a kid. It happened right when I was trying to experience the world, which is really unfortunate.

Last year I really did enjoy school for one of the first times in my life. Before, I wasn’t a big fan of it. Something about high school really is different. I know the risk is probably going to be pretty high because kids can still be infected. I’m more worried about my parents: me bringing the disease back, not knowing I have it because I’m a kid. My parents can get infected and potentially have to go to the hospital or something. 

We have a studio in our high school, and sometimes during study hall I’d sneak out of class and I’d go to the studio and make music with my friends. It was a really nice thing we did. I have a lot of memories doing it. That was probably when I’m at my most productive. My self-esteem goes up when I did that kind of stuff. So missing out on that is a big thing.

How are we even going to go back to normal? Reality kind of got shattered in a way. It feels almost awkward to say, OK, here we are again.

It would probably be best if we do do distance learning for a bit. But there’s a selfish part of me that says, Just open them up. We’ll deal with it when the problem comes. I know that’s probably the wrong view to have. 

But being locked away for so long, it makes you a little selfish, you know what I mean?


Sarah Sabrie, 13, 8th grade, Prairie Winds Middle School, Mankato

Distance learning took way shorter time than if you’re learning in an actual classroom. We got our work done faster that way. It was also less stressful because everything was just right on the computer: all the resources that you needed for stuff.

Overall I enjoyed it more. Probably because it was easier and it was less stressful than actual school. We still learn the same stuff.

I’m feeling pretty excited because it’s my last year of middle school. But I’m also kind of worried about how things will go, because of coronavirus.


Lay Lay, 17, senior, Humboldt High School, St. Paul

My junior year I did full time PSEO, so I wasn’t really much at school. I was at St. Paul College most of the time. It was different because they converted to online, too. I’m not really an online learner; I’m an in-person learner. I have to be in there to learn. So it was a little more difficult. But I have friends with me and we studied together, which helped.

I missed being able to ask questions right away when they come up. Online, it’s different. You’re going to have to phrase it differently and it’s kind of hard. The explanation isn’t always clear. In person, you can ask the teacher or professor to clarify what they meant.

I’m really sad because it’s our senior year and we’re not going to get that traditional experience that seniors get. But at the same time, public health is more important. So whatever works. 

I have concerns for other immigrant families who are learning at home because they don’t speak English. So they can’t really help their kids. Like my sister: She works and she can’t help her kids at the same time. So that’s gonna be difficult and I don’t know if the government will provide the electric bill or the wi-fi.

One of the classes I take is JROTC, and I really like that class. It’s like a tight community where you just can be yourself. I’m going to miss that class the most. You get a lot of leadership skills, and you get different perspectives on different things.

JROTC is meant for an in-person experience, not online. Online we’re really just reading articles and taking quizzes. That’s really not what the class is all about.

Sometimes we go to the gym and do formation. Other times each semester we do those fitness tests, like the mile run. It’s a lot of physical stuff for that class. Then you get field trips—like go up to Camp Ripley up north. We sleep in barracks and go navigating in the woods. It’s a lot of outdoor military-style stuff. They’re just teaching you discipline, like the military ways. The physical stuff we do is fun. You don’t get to do that online. You just read articles.

I hope they find something for COVID, so if we don’t get the full year, at least we get the half year. Like the second semester to be back to school and at least get our prom. If it’s not prom, senior night. 

Graduation! That’s the biggest thing. I want to have an in-person graduation because I didn’t work hard for four years just to do an online graduation. Not only am I getting my high school diploma, I’m also getting my associate’s degree from PSEO. It’s going to be two graduations for me, and if they’re all online that’s going to really suck.

Getting into colleges is really my worry, because we’re not going to have the resources—college and career centers at our school—to help us out. We’re going to have to communicate online and sometimes that doesn’t really end well. It might mess up my college application or scholarship. And I’m not sure how they’re going to do FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid] this year.

I want to go out of state, but for college I’m still deciding. I definitely want to have that traditional experience of living in a dorm and going to classes on the campus. And half of the tuition people pay for is for that in-person experience. If they are going to do it virtually, maybe they should lower tuition. Because college is expensive!


Walter Cortina, 17, senior, High School for Recording Arts, St. Paul

I go to a very non-traditional school, so I get a lot of my credits through the work I do within the community through my projects. For example, in the spring I was running a campaign to help high school students to get unemployment benefits. So I was working with the governor’s team.

I was writing a lot of memos, making a lot of calls, drafting language for bills. I got a lot of credit for that. I had to make budgets for grants: that went toward math and economics. My school is very open to how you can get your credits. 

The COVID thing made it actually easier to get my credits, because I didn’t have to check in with a person every hour. It made it a little bit more efficient.

My school’s very open to how you learn, so we were able to transition fairly quickly. A lot of work was just done through computers. Our school helped us with resources, with internet, with free computers.

I don’t like to sit in classes all the time and hear somebody talk to me all the time. I like to be in my own driver’s seat. That’s why I’m at this particular school. They allow me the freedom to do that.

I just miss socializing. And I really just miss having experiences and learning with other people. It’s kind of depressing to be honest. I don’t know if I get to graduate and walk the stage. I’ve been in school for 12 years, so I really do want to walk that stage and get that diploma. It’s one of the most important things.

I’m going to take a gap year and spend some time with my mother. She got deported when I was 13, so I’ve just been all by myself these past few years. Basically, I live on my own. This year, in the summer I got my own place. 

That’s why I work: to support myself and my family. I did lose my job. But I was able to get an internship at the Minneapolis Foundation.


Suhaib Mohamud, 12, 7th grade, Capitol Hill Gifted and Talented Magnet School, St. Paul

What do you miss about regular school?

Getting to talk to my friends. Going to gym class. Pretty much everything.

What’s your favorite subject in school?

Math and gym.

How do you do math and gym in distance learning?

In gym, we have to send videos of ourselves exercising. In math, we just do more work.

If you were the governor, what would you say that schools should do?

The rest of the classes could continue online. But one or two of the classes, like gym class, would be outside. You go to the teacher on the field, but everyone has to keep their distance and wear masks. The rest of the classes could be online.


Sumia Sabrie, 16, junior, East High School, Mankato

When we had the distance learning it was very different from regular school. All of a sudden things were getting shut down so teachers didn’t have as much preparation as they would have liked. 

I was taking AP chemistry, so it was kind of confusing. I would try to send emails to the teacher, and she would respond. But it would take a little longer than normal, because she would have other students who were also confused. For those classes like chemistry, math, I wish that I could maybe visit the teacher every once in a while to talk to them and get the questions I needed answered. 

Also it would be hard to stay motivated. Because some people, like me, have a big family. There’s lots of people in the house. You can easily get distracted while you’re doing your work. But if your parents are supporting you, then online classes are a great choice. 

I think it would work out as long as they have maybe a hybrid option, where for some classes you could go to the school, maybe with social distancing. Talk to teachers and get support that you need. It depends on each person and their living circumstances, environment, how they do in school.

The reason I’m taking online classes is to make sure I don’t get possibly COVID-19 or anything else. Because there’s still a chance, even if you’re wearing a mask, that you could still get it from someone. And I have a large family, so I wouldn’t want it to spread to anyone else.

The environment for online school is more welcoming because some of the people in the school are not that nice. When you’re having to be in the same classroom as them it makes it kind of hard to learn. If you’re in online school, you don’t have to worry about those kinds of people. You don’t have to worry about making friends or having to be discriminated against in any way. It’s just you and the teacher. 


Saylia Moo, 17, senior, Highland Park High School, St. Paul

Trying to do family needs and school needs was a little too difficult. Another thing that was also really difficult was access to wi-fi, because sometimes it would go off and on. 

A lot of the time, my sister would need help with her schoolwork, her algebra work. So a lot of the time I became the tutor of the household. I feel like the school could be doing better this year to provide more help with tutoring support. Even I need help sometimes.

I think in distance learning what I did most was just teaching myself the materials instead of teachers teaching me. What I miss about regular schooling is just having that access to ask a question right away when I needed. And being able to work with my other friends and classmates in class. 

Just like spacewise, it’s so much easier to learn at school than at home. Because you’re in a space to learn and at home you’re kind of…at home.

I don’t know how my art class is going to work out this year with distance learning. Does that mean I have to go out and buy ceramic supplies and stuff like that, or painting supplies? 

One of my greatest concerns with distance learning is how is everyone going to provide the materials to even be able to learn? I know I can provide my art materials if I need to. But I know for some other cases with some other people, I don’t know how that’s going to work out for them.

What would have been really helpful is to be in my biology class in person. We were doing a lab from home, and a lot of times it wasn’t making sense. I don’t have things to test on. 

I was supposed to test how the heart rate and the breathing rate changes. One of the examples that my teacher gave us was, we could test on another person. But the only voluntary person in the household was me. It wasn’t the most accurate data I was putting onto my lab report. But it works at the end, I guess.

I think what makes learning really fun is being able to experience it with another person and get really geeked out about what we’re doing. But I think with COVID going on right now, I really appreciate the fact that they’re doing it from home instead.

I tested positive for COVID before, and I wouldn’t want to be that person who infects another person. I was working at the grocery store where I was interacting with a lot of people, so I might have gotten it from there.

It was sort of the same as a cold, like a feverish flu cold. And a lot of aches, especially when it got really cold at nighttime. Every time I went out, my eyes were burning and they were a little bit itchy. I know it wasn’t allergies because I don’t have any allergies. And I would have a really bad headache. It wasn’t on the list of symptoms I saw on Google. But that’s how I felt after my quarantine days were over and I first went outside again. I did notice that it would be harder to breathe.

I really hope to bring up my GPA, and I really hope that I save up enough money and get enough scholarship for college. I hope I’m able to graduate on a stage. And I really hope that I don’t get sick again, because I know that has a huge toll on my fourth quarter last year.

Everyone has a chance of getting COVID. Yes, a younger person may have a lesser chance of getting COVID, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not gonna catch COVID. As someone who experienced it, it’s far more real than how it’s being handled right now.


Amelie Serbus, 7, left, and Antonia Serbus, 10, spent much of the summer splashing around in their backyard pool.

Amelie Serbus, 7, 2nd grade, Deephaven Elementary, Minnetonka

What was different about doing distance learning in the spring?

I like being at home with my mom. She teaches me a lot of things and I just feel more secure here for now. But I do miss my friends in school. 

It’s a lot of fun in my classroom because we do a lot of projects and stuff like that. I’m just worried of the coronavirus. I’m worried about that because my friend Isabella—she got coronavirus. I don’t know the story, but she just got coronavirus. 

Distance learning is my favorite thing, because I get to be with my family a lot. Sometimes my mom and my sister and me go on adventures. We go walk a lot, and we bike a lot, too. We’re always in our pool with friends.

If you were the governor, what would you say the schools should do?

I would bring everybody out of their houses and do stuff. And all the children that don’t have pools can have a pool like ours and be happy.

Antonia Serbus, 10, 5th grade, Deephaven Elementary, Minnetonka

As much as I want to see my friends in school, I also want to stay safe. But there are some advantages of being home: like having your parents there and not having to worry about being late. 

Some kids, when they’re in school, they start asking themselves if they’re good enough. Here at home, you can feel a little more secure. I know I feel more secure in my home. I feel safe this way. And for our safety, I think it is better if we all stay home. I know it has been a hard change, but I have learned to just roll with it.

I miss being able to be with my friends. I miss recess. During recess when it’s wet outside with snow, I get to stay inside and talk with my friends. But I know one thing for sure. I do not miss getting up early.

You’re supposed to stay six feet away and that would be really hard in a school. Pretty much all we want to do as kids is play and be together, have sleepovers and be with friends. 

In distance learning, I would get to spend a little more time with my family. But I would also miss everything in my school, I would miss my friends. So my heart is divided.

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