As COVID-19 began upending daily life in earnest in early 2020, uncertainty loomed everywhere. The effect on schools was especially concerning. As schools were pushed to distance learning, educators, students, and parents raised concerns about the impact on student outcomes and mental health.
A group of CEHD researchers saw this time as an opportunity to seek feedback from educators to gain their perspective on distance learning and perhaps derive some best practices and recommendations from the results.
“Kim Gibbons and I decided that we could seek the voice of educators in this tumultuous time and see what they were thinking,” says Katie Pekel, a principal in residence at the University and director of the Minnesota Principals Academy in the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development.
The result was the Minnesota PK-12 Distance Learning Survey, conducted in May and June 2020. Since that time, several other similar surveys were created and implemented, including three iterations of the Minnesota Safe Learning Survey and the Minnesota Principals Survey.
“We had multiple sources of data from focus groups and a review of District Safe Learning plans conducted in May of 2020 that identified potential areas of concern, but we wanted to have an opportunity for all educator voices to be heard across the state,” says Gibbons, director of the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI). “The results of this survey provided additional data that confirmed the areas of concern, along with some great qualitative data through open-ended questions.”
Distance Learning Survey
CAREI Research Associate Alyssa Parr says there were several steps involved in getting the Distance Learning Survey off the ground. “We went through existing surveys to see what others had studied regarding COVID and education, we met with various local stakeholders and people within the college, and we did focus groups with families, students, and educators,” she says. “That provided us some insights into what types of questions to ask in the Distance Learning Survey.”
Nicole McKevett, a fellow research associate in CAREI, says they used a University of Wisconsin survey to help get them started on question writing. “Once we had a draft, we recruited leaders across Minnesota on Zoom, and they gave us feedback and additional items we should be asking educators,” she says.
“One teacher would do his classes in his car in a parking lot with an ice pack under his computer.”
Once complete, the survey was distributed to educators across the state. Results came in from 13,077 respondents—including teachers, administrators, and support professionals—representing 409 districts and charter schools.
“One of the most interesting things is we asked a number of open-ended questions and didn’t limit the character boxes,” Pekel says. “We had more than 900 pages of open-ended comments. This was at a time when people were panicked. It was really emotional and heart-wrenching to read all of those.”
It’s easy to see, then, that mental health was one of the top concerns raised by the respondents. So much so that it figures prominently in each subsequent survey as well. “Reading all the responses, the depth of stress people were feeling didn’t surprise me, but it painted a picture that I wouldn’t have access to,” says CAREI Associate Director for Evaluation Services Laura Potter, demonstrating the insightful value of the surveys. “People going above and beyond, but being so stressed out.”
Tracking a different course were concerns over technology use. As the surveys went on, people had naturally adapted to technological challenges so it became less of an issue. However, with this first survey, the challenges were fresh.
“Teachers were doing anything they could to make the technology work,” Parr says. “Most striking about the comments we got were the lengths teachers went to, cobbling together whatever they could. One teacher would do his classes in his car in a parking lot with an ice pack under his computer.”
Parr adds that another standout was how educators learned over time. “A lot of educators shared they didn’t know what they were getting into. Some had not previously used tech platforms,” she says. “Others realized that some students excelled in a distance-learning environment because it lessened social pressure. They were really creative in building relationships and using learning formats that were really new to them.”
Results from the survey were shared broadly with state principal associations, Education Minnesota, and the Department of Education, which used them in its decision-making for its Safe Learning Plan. District-level reports were also sent to various school districts that had a certain level of respondents.
This is why we give
When Joyce Kloncz and her husband, Lenny, attended the U of M from 1958 to 1962, she admits they were poor, but they never felt that way, at least not in spirit. “Neither of our parents were able to financially help us with our college education, although they provided the moral support we both needed and encouraged us to stay in college,” she says. “So we struggled for those four years, but we never gave up.”
With Joyce working part-time at a local supermarket and Lenny at a hardware store, they scraped by. “At that time, tuition was $88 and health services was $12, so if we could save $300 during the summer, we could manage that next year,” she says. “Part-time work during the school year provided money for our textbooks.”
Borton says she and Holleran believe in giving back because they are grateful to so many people who helped them along the way and made a difference in their lives. “Giving back is part of our wellbeing and resilience,” she says. “It is something that makes us feel good and something we are excited about.”
Despite their financial struggles, Joyce and Lenny got their degrees. Lenny received his BS in 1962 and went on to be a 1st Lt. in the U.S. Air Force for three years. After that, he worked for a time at First National Bank in St. Paul and was later hired by 3M as an IT systems analyst. He received his MBA from the U in 1970. Joyce became an elementary teacher in Mounds View Schools. She taught for 26 years and also served as a science specialist and curriculum writer. She came back to the U to receive her MEd in 1981 and was honored as a Distinguished Alumni in 2017.
As her teaching years went by, Joyce often thought about how she could help future educators in CEHD avoid the financial pitfalls she and Lenny went through. When Lenny passed away in 2019, Joyce reached out to CEHD to donate funds given as memorials on his death. “That evolved into discussing how I might consider a yearly scholarship,” she says. Thus, the Joyce A. and Lenny D. Kloncz First Generation Scholarship Fund was created.
“This scholarship was set up for fifth-year, first-generation CEHD students, who, with student teaching and other commitments, may have financial issues, as I did,” Joyce says. “It’s a small way to provide support.”
Safe Learning Survey
Information from the Distance Learning Survey was also used to develop the Safe Learning Survey. This survey was developed by the Wisconsin-Minnesota Comprehensive Center (WMCC) to gauge the impact of the Department of Education’s Safe Learning Plan. The WMCC is a partnership among CAREI, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Wisconsin Evaluation Collaborative, and nonprofit Education Analytics.
The Safe Learning Survey was much broader in scope, as it included educators as well as families and students in sixth through 12th grade. It was also administered three times in 2021: February, May/June, and October/November. The three surveys in total garnered roughly 53,000 responses.
“The main theme that came out is there is not enough support for mental health for students,” Potter says. “The depth of need is so huge, and everyone agreed it was a challenge.” A need for mental health support for educators themselves also was a common finding.
A second theme that surfaced revolved around learning and engagement. “There were fluctuating reports about student learning,” Potter says. In the February survey, there was some struggling detected in learning, but as the spring and fall surveys showed, it became less over time. Interestingly, families felt there was less learning as the grade level increased, although everyone agreed that there was at least “some” learning happening at every level. In terms of engagement, it’s not surprising to find it more challenging when the class is virtual.
Some of the other takeaways included a focus on school equity. “Everyone agreed they wanted to have more of a voice in decision-making, including students,” Potter says. Respondents also wanted to see more managed workloads for staff, smaller class sizes, and more support staff.
As mentioned before, technology seemed less of a concern as time passed. “In the Distance Learning Survey, we found that technology was really an issue. In the third iteration of the Safe Learning Survey, we are hearing that tech is a success,” Pekel says. “In that short time period, there has been a radical change in how technology has been used for instruction.”
Presently, a final report of these three surveys is being written, after which it will be shared widely.
Minnesota Principals Survey
The Minneapolis Foundation and the Joyce Foundation contracted CAREI to develop this most recent survey in order to elevate the principal voice. “We plan to administer it every two years,” says CAREI Research Associate Sara Kemper. “The idea is to track how principals are feeling over time.”
Survey questions ranged from asking about principals’ professional development activities, their day-to-day experiences, and the status of their workloads. A section on COVID-19 also was included.
Although the survey turned out fairly lengthy, it had a strong 34 percent response rate. And the principals’ responses had many similarities to other educators.
“They are optimistic they can do their jobs, but are feeling overwhelmed,” Pekel says. “They want more or better professional development. And they are concerned about the mental health of students and staff. That’s where they need help and support. One in 10 principals are concerned about their own mental health.”
Mental health services were among the top areas where principals expected there to be lasting change to the existing structure of their schools. Other areas 0f expected change include use of technology, learning modalities, and relationship-building with students.
Once results of the survey are fully tabulated, it will be shared with stakeholders across the state, the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, and the legislature.
“We’re going to need to fundamentally rethink mental health in schools,” Pekel says. “We do not have enough people trained to provide the level of mental health support we’re being told is needed. The vast majority of educators are not trained in mental health, and they are quite nervous.”
Potter says educators are struggling, which aligns with stories of people leaving the profession in droves. Kemper agrees. “A common refrain is: ‘I’ve been working in this job for decades, and this was by far the hardest year in my career,’” she says.
Hopefully, the amount of data collected in these surveys will be enough to persuade policy makers that change is needed and where it will be most effective. If anything, the strong response rates for all the surveys show that educators were grateful they were being heard and that their opinions counted.
But this is what the U is all about. “As a land-grant institution, we are fulfilling that mission of serving Minnesota by seeking and elevating their voices,” Pekel says.