NISSWA, Minn. — Nisswa Elementary School played host to a tour for Gov. Tim Walz Thursday, July 22, as the state’s chief executive promoted the advancement of education in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Walz billed the event as something of a celebration to commemorate the return of children to schools across the state. He also said Thursday’s visit was intended to recognize the resiliency of educators during the pandemic and to discuss the passage of an education omnibus bill that represents more than $1 billion in increased funding over the next four years.
This is the largest increase in education funding by the state of Minnesota in 15 years. The bill includes boosted funding on a per capita basis, with additional monies intended to spur hiring of minority teachers and counseling for students affected by the pandemic, among other measures.
Drawing upon his experiences as a former high school social studies teacher, Walz commended educators and parents for overcoming the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and guiding their children through the upheaval.
“What it meant to be a student or a teacher or parent over the last 16 months — nobody alive really has experienced that. And they did it, always with children at the center of their concern, Walz said. “They were innovating, making sure that students could get what they needed, not just content, but the social, emotional learning side. And to be able to do it almost week to week in real time. ... I have to tell you, you've done a spectacular job.”
“We're not totally out of the woods yet on this COVID thing, but we have learned so much and we understand what it takes to make it happen.”
— Gov. Tim Walz
While Minnesota’s educators performed well under pressure and the state ranks among the best in the nation in terms of academic performance, Walz noted Minnesota has some of the worst racial disparities in the country, with students of color performing at markedly poorer rates than their white peers.
Heather Mueller, Minnesota's commissioner of education, accompanied Walz on Thursday's visit. She said Minnesota has to make a conscious effort to ensure all students can learn, grow and thrive in the public school system.
“One of the things we've talked about as we've been able to visit with schools across the state is to really recognize that, historically, we continue to talk about access as if it were the ceiling and what we know is access is actually the floor,” Mueller said. “That's where you should be starting in every single moment and from that point forward we should be thinking about participation and representation.”
For Brainerd School District Superintendent Laine Larson, Thursday’s tour — which involved an informal meeting between the governor and elementary students in the playground — served to remind her of what the district was striving for when it asked residents to approve a $205 million bonding referendum in 2018 to revamp school facilities. Walz praised area residents who — despite having district facilities that did not qualify for Title I status and, thus, didn’t receive as much state funding — supported their students and teachers in such an inspiring way.
“One thing that I learned throughout this process is that I often wondered, with technology, ‘Do we really need buildings and all those actual facilities to make education wonderful?’” Larson said. “What we learned through this process is yes we do. Because there's nothing more important than the direct contact between teachers and our children.”
Walz noted the state and the nation haven't completely resolved the COVID-19 pandemic. The delta variant is surging, he said, and while Minnesota has a robust vaccination rate, communities throughout the state still need to remain vigilant. He urged residents to get vaccinated as quickly as possible to stop the spread of COVID-19 once and for all.
In the meantime, Walz said his hopes were being realized, pointing back to a moment in 2020 when a reporter asked him what he looked forward to once COVID-19 was over.
“I said (to the reporter), ‘I cannot wait to be back in a school with children laughing and doing what children should do with caring adults around them,’” Walz said. “We're not totally out of the woods yet on this COVID thing, but we have learned so much and we understand what it takes to make it happen.”