The new Minnesota Department of Education commissioner believes this summer will be an important time for the state and school districts to focus on the recovery of learning during the coronavirus pandemic.

Current Education Deputy Commissioner Heather Mueller, who starts in her new role April 1, told the News Tribune during a one-on-one interview that Gov. Tim Walz's summer education package "provides supports that our schools and students need right now to recover from our COVID school year, and that includes a variety of things."

Walz introduced a $150 million package in his budget proposal to help fund expanded opportunities for summer learning programs, field trips, mental health support programs, summer preschool and college courses for graduating seniors.

Last week, Walz pushed the Legislature to approve the package by April 15 so school districts will have enough time to plan for these offerings during the summer.

“We needed that money yesterday,” Mueller said.

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MCA provides important data

Earlier this month, the Minnesota Department of Education announced that it wouldn’t apply for another waiver for the statewide assessment test, Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments. Two weeks later, the U.S. Department of Education announced it wouldn’t approve any waivers for assessments.

Neither of these decisions were well-received by educators due to the challenges COVID-19 has created for school districts.

Mueller said the assessment tests will allow the state and school districts to see where the learning gaps and strengths are. She stressed that the test should not be used as an evaluation tool for individual students or as “an indictment on the ability of teachers to be able to help support learning over this past year in the pandemic.”

“The reason that the (assessment) data continues to be important is that it's a systems look at where we are with every single student group across the state,” Mueller said. “It gives a sense not only to the Department of Education and how we would be able to provide support, but it also gives information to our school leaders, to be able to look at their entire district and each of their individual schools and identify where their strengths, weaknesses and gaps exist.”

Mueller said the Department of Education is taking advantage of some exemptions from the federal government. Minnesota has extended the testing time period by two weeks and is working on an accountability waiver.

Mueller said the department is working with groups across the state to get information about what they would include in the waiver, and then the waiver will be posted for a week for review and feedback.

The accountability waiver, if approved, would allow districts that are receiving extra support to extend it another year. It would mean the state would not be identifying any new schools this year for support and improvement under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

“If based on that feedback, it seems like we should be moving forward with the waiver, then we will,” Mueller said.

Closing equity gaps

The pandemic and distance learning has compounded the inequities among student groups such as students of color, English language learners and special education students.

In January, Walz introduced his “Due North” education plan, which is centered on ensuring every child in Minnesota receives a high-quality education, no matter their race or ZIP code. Mueller said the plan was created to address the inequities exacerbated by the pandemic this year.

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Another way the Department of Education is hoping to address these inequities is with the help of the newly established Equity Diversity and Inclusion Center, which is in the process of hiring a director. Mueller said the center will be responsible for helping to support trauma-informed instruction and help support anti-bias instructional practices.

“In addition, their working role will be to engage with our communities and partner with them in the work that they are doing in our Black communities, Indigenous communities and our communities of color and to really be specific in targeted communication with families,” Mueller said. “It is the responsibility of the entire agency to support equity, diversity and inclusion.”