COVID-19 school closures ‘surreal’ for families, educators

Minneapolis Public Schools Senior Food Service Coordinator Todd Waldeland
Minneapolis Public Schools Senior Food Service Coordinator Todd Waldeland hands out lunches on March 17 at Roosevelt High School. The district is distributing no-cost meals to students at 20 sites during the coronavirus closure. Submitted photo

The first day Chip Jenne’s daughter was kept home from her Windom magnet school, the first-grader was already missed her friends.

Gov. Tim Walz closed all Minnesota public schools between March 18 and March 27 because of the coronavirus pandemic, though districts were able to close earlier if they wished. Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) closed to students on March 17.

Educators are expected to prepare for “distance learning” during the break; the pandemic could keep schools closed for weeks or months. The governor said classes must resume in some form on March 30, though MPS won’t resume until April 6 because spring break is scheduled for the week of March 30.

Jenne, who picked up reading materials from Windom Dual Immersion School on March 16, the day he pulled his daughter out of class, said the school has provided access to online education activities but that it’s hard to replicate the first-grade experience.

“School at that age is about being with other kids,” he said.

Across Southwest Minneapolis, students, parents and educators said the days leading up to the closure were unlike anything they had ever experienced.

They said closing schools was the right thing to do, though they recognized the unknowns that come with it, including the prospect of missing the rest of the school year and milestones like graduation.

Almost all said they’d miss school and the social interaction that comes with it and that they appreciate educators’ efforts to keep students engaged.

“It just feels surreal to have to worry about some of this stuff and go through it all,” Kenwood Community School parent Kirsten Eitreim said.

Eitreim, who has two kids at Kenwood, said her daughter emptied out her desk on March 16 in case it ends up being the last day of the school year. She said her kids are coming to terms with the fact that the break won’t be all fun and games, noting the piles of homework they brought home.

Burroughs Community School parent Jess Khan has tried to replicate the school schedule as much as possible for her kids, who have been at home since last week.

“We’re surviving a lot on FaceTime and Google Docs,” she said.

Washburn High School parent Dawn Nelson told her twin 12th-grade daughters to clean out their school lockers on March 16.

She said Washburn teachers are working hard to get materials online and that the school has surveyed families about the technology they have available.

Nelson’s daughters were scheduled to leave March 21 for a study-abroad trip in France, which has been cancelled. She also has a daughter in college who scrambled to get home from a study-abroad trip in Argentina.

Former Southwest student Sophie Nall, who graduated in 2018, returned to Minneapolis March 11 from a study abroad trip in Malta. The island country is near Italy, which has been the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in Europe.

Nall, who is studying theater at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, said it’s great to be home and that she doesn’t feel as much anxiety as she did while in Europe. 

She has been quarantined in her bedroom since returning and has had limited contact with her younger brothers and family.

“It’s been not the worst-case scenario, but not ideal,” she said.

Last Day Coronavirus March 16, 2020-23
The Kenwood Elementary School playground was empty on March 16, the last day before the district closed schools through at least April 6. Families and educators said March 16 was a day unlike they have ever experienced at school. Photo by Kirsten Eitreim

‘The most unproductive day’

In a March 17 interview, Washburn 11th-grader Nathaniel Genene said much is still unclear, from online learning plans to when students will take Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB) and ACT tests.

All Washburn juniors were supposed to take the ACT on March 24, and IB and AP tests are generally in May. Those tests have not yet been cancelled.

High schools are also figuring out grading procedures for the third quarter of the academic year, which is supposed to end March 26.

Genene said March 16 was probably “the most unproductive day of school I’ve ever seen,” adding that a lot of kids were absent.

He said he’s been surprised by how many students are taking the break to give back to their community through activities such as a student-led food drive.

As required by Gov. Walz’ order, MPS began a meal service for students on March 17, handing out lunches and snacks at 20 sites throughout the city. Staffers also handed out enrichment packets to families who wanted them.

On March 18, the district began providing child care for students 12 and under who have parents in health care or emergency services, as Walz mandated. The district said it’s not publicly sharing the sites where it’s providing that care.

The district held a press conference on March 17 to announce some of the measures outlined in this story, but did not provide a way to watch the press conference for members of the public or journalists who could not be — or did not wish to be — physically present.

‘Whirlwind of emotion’

At Southwest, guitar program director Ruth LeMay spent March 16 checking out equipment to students who wanted it.

She said the day was a “whirlwind of emotion” for students, though they know the closures are important. 

Band and orchestra teacher Reid Wixson spent much of his day photocopying music, and he delivered instruments to students afterschool. He said he’s bummed out about missing the spring musical, “A Chorus Line,” which the school postponed after one performance. Wixson said the hardest part of the closure is the uncertainty around when it will end.

A district spokesperson wrote in an email that MPS will share additional information through its normal channels, including emails, robocalls and social media. More information on the district’s response to the pandemic is at tinyurl.com/mpscovid.