Back to classrooms? Minnesota school administrators say they'll need more buses, mental health funding

Minnesota education officials got an earful from school administrators who said they need more direction and funding for a potential return to the classroom this fall, but the state officials offered few specifics Tuesday.

State Department of Education officials have pledged to say by the end of July whether schools should do in-person classes, distance learning, or a hybrid model. Gov. Tim Walz has said he wants to see students back in the classroom, but has not said which model he prefers.

During a House Education committee hearing, some school administrators complained that the administration was slow-walking the guidance and failing to give individual districts enough flexibility.

“It’s my hope that policymakers will recognize that a one-size-fits-all approach may not be the best solution," said Tim Lutz, superintendent of Bemidji Area Schools.

State education officials declined to release the results of a feedback survey asking parents whether they were comfortable with a return to the classroom. The survey has been extended until July 6 and the state will not release results before then, said Wendy Hatch, a Department of Education spokeswoman.

When a Republican lawmaker asked why the Department of Education was requiring districts to prepare for three different scenarios -- instead of letting them submit their own reopening plan for approval -- commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker did not give a direct answer.

"Everything is on the table right now," Ricker said.

The administrators said the Walz administration and state lawmakers will need to come through with funding for mental health resources and transportation costs.

They said social distancing will require more bus routes, and expected that finding enough buses and drivers would be a barrier to reopening.

In Robbinsdale, school board chairman David Boone said the district expected to need 50 percent more routes at a cost of $5.6 million in the upcoming school year.

Sabrina Williams, executive director of Excell Academy charter school in Brooklyn Park, said 80 percent of her students take the bus, sometimes three per seat.

“Who’s gonna pay for the transportation with so many buses needed? Is there enough capacity in the transportation companies with a driver shortage," Williams said. "This will be the determining factor on whether we can actually offer on-site educational services.”

A school bus that regularly seats 77 students could fit only 17 under social distancing requirements, assistant commissioner Heather Mueller said.

Administrators from the Metro and outstate area raised different sets of challenges. Urban school officials asked state lawmakers to provide more funding for mental health resources.

Students will return to the classroom with twin traumas caused by the long layoff without in-person classes and the May 25 police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, in Minneapolis, they said.

"Kids of color are suffering the most and are coming back with probably significantly more trauma than they left with as a result of the pandemic and the killing of George Floyd," said  Sandy Lewandowski, superintendent of Intermediate School District 287 in the west suburbs. The district provides trauma-sensitive education to students with special needs.

In rural districts, high-speed internet remains a challenge. 

Even if the state goes to a hybrid model that combines some in-person instruction with at-home learning, the inequities between students will grow, said Tom Bremmer, principal at Cloquet Middle School.

"We just cannot make it equitable for all our kids," Brenner said. “We tried hotspots. Our kids live in such rural (areas) that even a hotspot doesn’t work for them.” 

Other district administrators said they preferred not to wait until the end of July to hear guidance from the Department of Education.

“One of the things that would be very helpful to us in St. Louis Park is to know as soon as possible," said Astein Osei, the St. Louis Park Public Schools superintendent.