Parents Testify Need for Kids to Return to School as Senate’s Education Committee Launches First Meeting of 2021
By: Lolla Nur, Freelance Community Journalist
While national and local pro-Trump mobs and protestors swarmed the D.C. and Minnesota Capitols yesterday, our state Senate began its 2021 legislative session’s Education Finance and Policy Committee meeting. The meeting was held via Zoom and began at 3pm.
The Committee’s Chair is Sen. Roger Chamberlain (R-District 38) and Vice Chair is Sen. Justin Eichorn (R-District 5). There are nine members on the committee.
Yesterday’s agenda focused on “getting kids back to school,” and included 12 community members, mostly parents, testifying how their children and families were dealing with the pandemic, school closures and social distancing measures.
Testifiers included a mix of organizers, healthcare professionals, former school board members and several mothers. Recurring themes from multiple parents included: mental health needs of their children, addressing students with disabilities, students of color and low-income students, a challenges with technology and digital access, and difficulties reaching educators with parent concerns regarding school closures and dropping grades.
The first testifer Kofi (last name was not announced), is an African American woman and parent of three who lives in Shoreview. “My COVID experience has been difficult,” she said, describing how her teen child with a disability has been struggling.
Anxiety & Mental Health
She said since COVID, she was able to advocate for having a paraprofessional to help with teaching at home but “life just sucks, it’s really hard,” she said during her testimony. “Sometimes I feel like I’m drowning, sometimes I cry. My kids are struggling socially, they have social anxiety.”
Kofi suggested that local government should allocate funds to each student directly, rather than to schools themselves, especially if distance-learning or attending public school during closures isn’t working for them.
“It bothers me that the people who speak the loudest about caring about the marginalized are those who speak loudly about keeping distance-learning going even if it’s not working for most people,” she said.
Another testifier was introduced as Mr. Christiansen; he said his children go to Farmington Public Schools and he was unhappy when Governor Walz announced school closures last year due to COVID measures. Due to distance learning, his kids struggle to keep up with deadlines and their grades have fallen, he said. His child diagnosed with ADHD is “detached from school…missing opportunities to connect with teachers” and gets distracted by games/technology, he added.
“Our kids’ mental health is faltering,” Christiansen said, quoting a CDC statistic about increases in youth drug overdose rates and attempted suicide rates in young people last year (presumably due to COVID and social distancing rules).
Rashad Turner, the founder of the St. Paul chapter of Black Lives Matter, testified that his family has had to spend “a lot of money” to supplement what he says was supposed to be a free public education.
“This year has been a complete wreck for my daughter,” Turner said. “What about the families that don’t have the resources [to pay out of pocket]?”
Turner also pointed to his frustrations with barriers to technology access, suggesting that it was unfair for schools to hold families accountable for student absences when students were dealing with trying to understand how to use Zoom or Google meet.
Tonya Draughn, another African American parent, is a mother of six and grandmother to 13. Her grandchildren go to school in St. Louis Park, where schools there utilized a hybrid model of in-person and distance learning.
However, her children who attended St Paul Public Schools were only distance-learning. She observed that the hybrid model allowed kids to “adapt very well, however the St Paul children doing just distance learning have had a different experience.”
Draughn echoed previous sentiments of her children falling behind and needing to secure tutors to help with teaching at home, but that parents also need financial support with childcare.
“How am I supposed to go to work and pay for rent and everything else?” Draughn asked the Senate committee.
She ended her testimony by urging the Education committee members to get creative. “We need you guys to listen and open your ears, think outside the box, come up with solutions for us,” Draughn said. “Then, come back to us and say, ‘Hey do you think this will work?’ And let us give you our opinion.”
Two physicians also testified, quoting alarming statistics about youth drug overdose, depression, anxiety and suicide rates since last March.
Dr. Stephen Delisi began his statement by saying racial inequities in healthcare and education access in Minnesota have been salient, and inequities exacerbated by COVID are leading to increased alcohol, depression and drug-related deaths among young people. He said those rates had already quadrupled in the last decade prior to COVID.
Negative mental health due to school closures “is a national childhood Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE)” for young Minnesotans and Americans, he said.
“I urge you to listen to the stories of parents,” Dr. Delisi urged the Education committee. “We have to do assessments in schools, identify needs and support with evidence-based resources for prevention to change the trajectory so chronic life-long mental health and substance use disorders do not occur.”
After the parents and physicians concluded their testimonies, Sen. Jason Isaacson (D-District 42) agreed that, “COVID is just revealing a lot of the inequities we had already in our system, especially with folks socio-economically segregated from our economy.”
Sen. Chamberlain emphasized the need to address the mental health concerns raised. The meeting adjourned at 4:45pm.
Education Committee meetings take place Mondays and Wednesdays at 3pm and are viewable on the Minnesota Senate Media Services Youtube channel.