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Students give distance learning model a failing grade

“This year, the isolation on top of everything has been crushing," Katelyn Dorry, a junior at Grand Rapids High School, told House lawmakers during a hearing on distance-learning. Screenshot
“This year, the isolation on top of everything has been crushing," Katelyn Dorry, a junior at Grand Rapids High School, told House lawmakers during a hearing on distance-learning. Screenshot

Many school districts have been operating within a distance learning model since the COVID-19 pandemic began last spring. Nearly a year into the modified instruction, students say it isn’t measuring up.

More than a half-dozen students representing communities from across the state shared their distress over distance learning and its impacts Tuesday with the House Education Finance Committee, during its first meeting of the 2021 session.

“We chose to start this biennium’s hearings [listening to] youth voices. This is very similar to what we did the previous biennium as well, because we believe it’s important that we listen to these voices and that we hear from students directly on what their experience of education in Minnesota is,” said Rep. Jim Davnie (DFL-Mpls), the committee's chair.

Katelyn Dorry, a junior at Grand Rapids High School, said she has always been an eager and engaged student who aspires to go to an Ivy League school. However, she said distance learning has sapped her motivation and been detrimental to her mental health.

House Education Finance Committee 1/12/21

“I’m a social being that learns in a structured environment with back-and-forth interaction with my teachers and peers,” she said. “This year, the isolation on top of everything has been crushing.

“This pandemic brought me to my knees. I went from feeling invincible to just feeling small. Unable to keep up with my own expectations of myself, with the extracurriculars I need to participate in, with my duties as a Minnesota Youth Council rep. Honestly, my anxiety is the only thing keeping my grades up.”

All students shared challenges unique to their communities, as well as the profound impacts of online learning such as increased workloads, isolation and lack of motivation, accountability and support services.

The online model has also highlighted existing inequities in accessing technology. The lack of resources was a significant issue raised by all of the students representing Greater Minnesota, including Salma Abdi, a junior at Century High School in Rochester.

“We cannot wait around for a five-year plan or a quick-and-easy investment until the pandemic is over because the inequities across the state are evidence of deeper issues that have existed for decades,” she said.

Rep. Sondra Erickson (R-Princeton) asked the students to share how less academically motivated classmates are faring, and what they would suggest are the best ways to help struggling students who are falling behind.

“Teachers, in my opinion, need to go back and almost guide students that are struggling to turn in assignments and get work done,” explained Isaac Fox, a junior at Southwest High School in Minneapolis.

Acknowledging the impacts of distance learning have been largely negative, Rep. Julie Sandstede (DFL-Hibbing) asked if there was any part of their online or hybrid learning experience that had been beneficial.

“We have heard a lot of negative impact and I understand that wholeheartedly as a teacher myself, I know the importance of being back in the classroom,” she said, “But we don’t know when the next pandemic or the next situation would arise. Is there anything that was a positive that we should be aware of for the preparation of maybe something in the future?”

Students said many teachers have been more accommodating. Additionally, the alternative learning model did offer more flexibility, and there was some support for a hybrid model.

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