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How COVID-19 has interrupted — and modified — teacher licensure in Minnesota

State lawmakers passed a six-month extension for all teacher licenses that were set to expire after June 30. 

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MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
The Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board Executive Director Alex Liuzzi estimates they still have about 10,000 teachers who still haven’t applied for renewals yet — a backlog that would have greatly disrupted the upcoming school year if a deadline extension had not been granted.
Back in March, when Gov. Tim Walz began issuing executive orders in response to COVID-19, he began granting flexibility to licensing boards that oversee health-care workers, firefighters and other critical professionals.  

But teachers seeking licensure renewals had to wait until the very end of the 2020 state legislative session to find out they’d also been granted a grace period. State lawmakers ended up passing a six-month extension for all teacher licenses that were set to expire after June 30. 

With testing centers and professional-development opportunities shuttered, those lobbying state legislators for an extension worried that nearly a quarter of educators would have been impacted if state leaders didn’t take action. And while it seemed unlikely that a governor with a teaching background would allow such a critical deadline to lapse without being addressed, educators were starting to get anxious — wondering how they’d navigate the licensure system disruptions, all while closing out the school year in a distance-learning format. 

Looking at the other end of the teacher pipeline, state leaders took action much sooner to ensure prospective teachers — primarily college students completing an approved Minnesota teacher preparation program — would be able to complete their student teaching requirements amid the pandemic.

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There are still plenty of unknowns heading into the start of the 2020-2021 school year — including school budgets and what coming back to school will even look like. But, at least for now, Minnesota is poised to avoid any logistical disruptions to its teacher pipeline. Here’s a closer look at how this critical workforce is holding up. 

Extended deadline for renewals

These past few months, the state board that oversees teacher licensure — the Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board (PELSB) — has continued accepting applications. Staff have continued working from home, with a handful recently returning to the office, in shifts, to take care of the details that need to happen on-site, says Alex Liuzzi, executive director of PELSB. Every year they process renewals for about 20,000 teachers. Some applied as early as January, and have already been processed. But he estimates they still have about 10,000 who still haven’t applied for renewals yet — a backlog that would have greatly disrupted the upcoming school year, were a deadline extension not granted. 

The teacher license-renewal process has been stalled by a couple of major coronavirus-related disruptions, he says. First off, the local committees that oversee relicensure in each school district have been unable to meet in person to collect and review professional-development submissions from teachers seeking licensure renewals. 

The board conducted a survey of relicensure committees just a couple of weeks ago to find out how many have resumed work, in an alternative format, and found that “almost 25 percent weren’t meeting at all — not even virtually.”

In many cases, this process gets bogged down by its low-tech format. Teachers often submit papers that document which professional-development opportunities they’ve completed, to meet specific requirements — related to reading instruction, positive behavior interventions and more — spelled out in state statute, for the entire committee to review. 

Abby Roze, a licensed adult education teacher who works with adults seeking GEDs and similar skills in Ramsey County, says she was fortunate in that she already had all of her credits ready to submit. But the lack of direction from the relicensure committee that she submits to in the Minneapolis Public Schools district, as well as from the state, had left her worried that her teaching license was still going to expire at the end of June. 

District offices were closed. And everyone she emailed kept telling her to hang tight, she says. Then she got instructions to scan in all of her professional-development credits — for her, about 100 pieces of paper that she’d organized for an in-person drop-off months ago. 

These new conditions “seem a bit unfair and weighted toward teachers who have the luxury of time, and equipment,” she said. 

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Rebooting professional development, testing

Roze is also concerned that the six-month extension won’t do enough to alleviate hardships on her peers who still need to complete professional-development credits over the summer months, which is typically “a down time for teachers,” and into the start of the next school year. 

“It means they’re going to have to work outside of their hours,” she said, adding that some will also be put in the difficult position of having to ask for time away from the classroom to complete those credits at the outset of the upcoming school year. 

By then, Liuzzi says, organizations that typically offer professional-development opportunities for teachers will have largely adapted, offering courses virtually. “So an additional six months will help those teachers get that [professional development] done in time,” he said. “It feels like a great extension — not too long, but not too short.”

Education Minnesota, the state’s teachers union, serves as the largest supplier of professional-development opportunities in the state for teachers. The union has already moved its big summer event, called Summer Seminar, entirely online. And staff are in the process of converting more online professional-development offerings, to be available by the end of the summer, said Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota. 

“Distance learning has been a difficult challenge for Minnesota’s educators, so we’re thankful the 2020 Legislature passed policy changes to teacher re-licensure that removed some anxiety from our members around their required continuing education units,” she said. “These changes will give teachers and their districts until December to get the teachers’ professional development in order. We expect that will be enough time to finish the work, but we’re also aware the COVID-19 outbreak is far from over and more changes might be necessary.”

Specht also commended state legislators for creating a conditional one-year license for those pursuing a Tier 3 license, who are currently unable to access required content and pedagogy tests while the testing company remains closed. 

This will impact a mix of prospective teachers coming out of teacher-prep programs and those looking to move from a Tier 2 to a Tier 3 license — a transition that comes with two distinct benefits: greater autonomy to move from one district to another (since teachers file independent of any district for a Tier 3 license) and unlimited renewals, whereas Tier 2 and Tier 1 licenses are both capped at three renewals. 

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Regarding resuming teacher licensure testing, Liuzzi says now that testing centers are being allowed to reopen, the board is working with Pearson testing in Minnesota to create safe testing arrangements, with an expected reopen date of May 29, at the latest. 

Student teaching expedited

Under normal circumstances, prospective teachers in Minnesota must complete 12 weeks of face-to-face student teaching as part of their teacher-prep program completion. School closures, due to COVID-19, forced PELSB and the programs they oversee to come up with some work-arounds to ensure that the incoming cohort of new teachers are able to graduate on time. 

The majority of students already had at least six weeks of in-class student teaching experience, Liuzzi said. So it became a matter of finding a way to complete student teaching in the distance-learning environment, and of tightening up the timeline. 

“We do have a concern about the fall,” he added, noting some districts are already talking about not taking student teachers next fall because they’re concerned about overtaxing their teachers, who don’t even know how to plan for the upcoming school year yet. 

Likewise, if the entire student teaching experience for the next cohort needs to happen through distance learning, those details will need to be worked out.

Teaching aspiring teachers during a pandemic that has completely upended the school system has presented a number of challenges for teacher-prep programs. Not only have student teaching experiences been modified, but many college students are, themselves, facing the same barriers to learning that K-12 students are facing — a list that includes things like a lack of internet access, or good internet speed, and having to navigate added distractions while completing coursework from home.

Jennifer Meagher, director of elementary and secondary student teaching at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, says most of her students had already completed at least eight weeks of face-to-face student teaching prior to school closures. Her program normally requires 16 weeks of student teaching — four more than what’s required by the state. But they settled on 10 weeks of student teaching, the state minimum right now, to ensure that all 48 students could complete the program on time. 

As she continues to monitor job postings for her students, she says the demands for special education teachers, English as a Second Language teachers, math teachers — and those in other content shortage areas — persist. But she has noticed a shift in what types of skill sets schools are seeking. 

“What I’ve seen is more of an emphasis in the postings about their digital presence and their ability to be flexible and adaptable,” Meagher said. 

On that front, her students are well positioned to land teaching jobs. They are digital natives, she says, noting many played an instrumental role in helping their cooperating teachers and others transition to distance learning, offering tutorials for online learning platforms and more. 

Matt Captain, one of her students, finished out his last week of life sciences student teaching experience at Sauk Centre High School virtually, once the district had begun distance learning. But in that time period, he was able to support his teacher mentor, and others, in gaining proficiency in the online platforms they were preparing to use for distance learning. He also helped set up six to eight weeks of distance learning content on the Canvass online learning platform “that was keeping my cooperating teacher going,” he says. 

“It’s challenging to teach those lab components of life science, because it’s all about students going outside and having field experiments, or doing hands-on learning with dissections, or running experiments in a lab setting,” he said. “So we really had to find those online integrative labs that would still try to give that experience to students.”