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For Just School Reopenings, We Need Student Voice

In Minnesota, advancing education justice during the COVID-19 pandemic must begin with addressing the inequities exacerbated by our return to school this fall.

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Mia DiLorenzo is a junior at Edina High School with a passion for journalism and any other forms of storytelling. She works on her high school newspaper as the Head Staff Writer, works with her state legislators on various bills, and organizes with the Minnesota Youth Climate Strike. Mia's work has been published in Washington Post's "The Lily" and in Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine. When not engaging with journalism, she can be found reading various works of fiction, listening to David Bowie, or rewatching Spotlight. A writing enthusiast, she welcomes any opportunity to further practice and improve her literary skills. Mia is incredibly excited to work alongside Student Voice and other young people from around the country.

(Source: NBC News)

When my school adopted a hybrid learning model for this upcoming year, I was disappointed, not necessarily for the students, but for the teachers and faculty members. Earlier this year, I had wrongly assumed that things would be somewhat calm by the fall — masks would be a thing of the past and cities would slowly (but surely) start to wake up. My naïve optimism of six months ago assumed we’d be able to safely return to in-person school, mask-free and semi-normal. Reopenings around the nation have proven otherwise, and teachers are being placed at risk.

The initial communication between the district administration and the students was during early July. Though rumors were being spread about the possibility of reopening, it seemed absurd and highly unlikely — largely considering the fact that the city had a small outbreak in teenage COVID-19 cases after a district-wide party. I had periodically met with teachers throughout the summer for various clubs and extracurricular activities, and we all expressed general confusion with the administration. I can’t speak for every student at my school, but I can say with certainty that I was incredibly surprised after their announcement to continue with hybrid schooling. 

Earlier that month, three of the biggest school districts in the state — Minneapolis Public Schools, St. Paul Public Schools and Bloomington Public Schools — had all announced their commitment to pursue a distance model while improving their technology access and working out the details of an e-Learning program. It seemed only natural that other Hennepin County districts would follow suit, and thankfully some high schools did. However, my administration stated that they would remain firm on their commitment to in-person learning during a school board meeting.

The understanding between students and staff had been that teachers would be split based on their preferences of teaching online versus through the hybrid model. Online students would have specific online teachers, and the same would be true for in-person students and teachers. Around two weeks before the first day of school, teachers were notified that they would be planning for both online and hybrid students — they would have to create two different curriculum and teaching models to accommodate both groups. If this was always the plan, it wasn’t clearly communicated to teachers or any other faculty members.

Had the criteria for hybrid learning been more specific, I would have felt as if the administration was ensuring and prioritizing the well-being of district teachers. Now, more than 75% of students will be returning to in-person schooling with the vast majority of teachers participating in the hybrid model, according to administrators in the district. Any teachers with older parents, young children, or with threatening health conditions need to take care of themselves first; now they’re being asked to teach two to three separate cohorts of students.

As schools around the country reopen through various models, we must ensure that this reopening is equitable for both teachers and students.  How can educators advance educational equity when they’re barely given the resources to maintain a functioning classroom? 

Several of my online classes lack the technology to adapt to an in-person learning environment; some classes I can barely hear my teacher instructing the class. To that end, I don’t fault any teachers for technological shortcomings — I couldn’t even imagine being in their position. 

School administrations must be responsible for maintaining an equitable transition into a hybrid learning model, instead of placing the burden on the already overloaded teaching staff. This looks like providing modern technology to both students and teachers, coming up with a comprehensive child care plan for any faculty member, and including the voices of those directly impacted by reopening schools.

Educational equity creates a strong community between the teachers, students and faculty. This can’t be achieved when educators aren’t given the resources they need. This country has witnessed how a poor response to a global pandemic can exacerbate existing inequities, and these disparities are clearly reflected in the classroom. Adopting a more equitable education policy must be built on a solid foundation, starting with including the voices of students and educators in district-wide decisions.