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Year in Review: Five 2021 education stories that will continue to matter in 2022

From social studies standards to the spread of COVID-19, expect these stories from the last year to continue to play a big role in education discussions in the year ahead.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Since March of 2020, schools have dominated headlines as districts scrambled to make significant policy decisions involving operating in the middle of a pandemic. And while this year is no different with schools having returned to in-person instruction, another major topic took hold of the education news cycle: critical race theory.

This past September, many students across Minnesota returned to the classroom for the first time in over a year, with most districts ending their hybrid/remote learning model. The return of students in person along with growing staff and supply chain chain shortages have stretched schools thin with many teachers and support staff unable to provide the same level of service with bus routes being cut short, food supply shortages affecting school lunches, and some after school activities being canceled.

On top of these challenges, many school districts faced an increased level of scrutiny on their social studies curricula. For months, school board meetings were the center of contentious debates surrounding critical race theory — a legal theory that seeks to critically examine U.S. law as it intersects with race through a social, cultural and legal lens, that has been diluted into a catch-all phrase for the instruction of anything race-related in classrooms. Debates at some school board meetings in Minnesota became so heated that at times districts called for support from law enforcement. And while some school board candidates in Minnesota’s midterm elections made critical race theory a platform in their campaigns, the candidates achieved little success in the elections.

Still, many leaders in education believe CRT will continue to dominate school news in the coming year.  And as Minnesota and the rest of the country experiences a surge from the new COVID-19 variant, omicron, schools will continue to have to make vital decisions in the coming year. Here are five education stories from 2021 that will continue to evolve in 2022.

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1. “What are Minnesota’s social studies standards — and does critical race theory have anything to do with them?”

The Minnesota Department of Education is in the midst of a  review of the state’s social studies standards that will set the framework for what students will learn in their social studies classes for the next 10 years. The revision process, which began in summer 2020, occurs once a decade, with implementation of the revision taking five years after the process begins.

MDE has now published its third and final draft of social studies standards. Once approved, they will require ethnic studies for all public school students along with new requirements for teaching gender and religion. The third draft will be open for public comment until January 14.

Criticism of the last two drafts has mostly come from the right, with one conservative organization, the Center of the American Experiment publishing a series of articles calling the draft “woke” and criticizing the parts of the curriculum that included recognizing bias and institutional injustice. In June, the organization organized a statewide tour of events in 17 cities, dubbed the “Raise our Standards Tour,” to push back on “critical race theory” and to “learn how parents can push back against the politicizing of our schools.”

2. “After a summer of controversy, some Minnesota teachers are anxious about the return of the school year”

Over the summer, school board meetings experienced a surge in attendance throughout the state. Usually during summer months there is a decline in attendance, but with mask mandates and critical race theory headlining the news, parents lined up at school board meetings to express their concerns or support to local representatives.

Teachers, who have always experienced some level of pushback towards curriculum, said in August that they were receiving an unprecedented level of harassment, giving many teachers anxiety about returning to the classroom for the school year.

For some teachers, the school board meetings were just the tip of the iceberg in what they fear will be continuing scrutiny. In Pequot Lakes, community members have made data requests for a list of teachers who received equity training and other parent groups in the state have circulated forms with templates for students to hand to teachers on the first day of school requesting information from the teachers about the curriculum and outlining what the parent approves of.

3. “In light of the Chauvin trial and Wright killing, Black students in the Twin Cities push for more support at school”

In the year since a global racial reckoning spread from the streets of Minneapolis, students in the Twin Cities have become more politically and socially active. And as many Black students have taken up a call to organize for social justice, some have also expressed that schools need to do more in leading conversations about race and in supporting Black students.

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In the aftermath of the shooting of Daunte Wright, John Dabla, an advisor at Twins Cities Academy, led a healing circle for students to navigate their emotions as they watched the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin take place some 13 miles from their school. Many of the students, Dabla said, felt frustrated and needed a space to talk through their emotions. Wright’s death in the midst of the Chauvin trial heightened the need to offer students healing and counseling services.

As with many high schools in the Twin Cities area, teachers were encouraged to lead discussions on the events of the past year and were offered resources to assist in facilitating the conversations. But as one teacher noted, most were not mandated to do so.

4. “Amid staffing shortages, Minnesota schools call on retired teachers to fill vacancies”

With staffing shortages in schools across the state, districts have taken various measures to adapt, including emailing parents about filling temporary substitute roles, adding days on to winter break and reaching out to retired teachers.

While bringing in retired teachers isn’t exactly new — schools have long maintained relationships with their retired teachers to fill in substitute roles — there has been a significant uptick in recruiting efforts and the number of retirees now filling in the substitute positions as the number of job openings in schools soars.

Al Sowers, Vice President of Teachers on Call, a staffing agency based in Bloomington that services the Midwest and Northwest parts of the country, said his company has seen an increase in retired teachers returning to the classroom. Forty percent of the company’s current staffing pool is now retired teachers. It was thirty percent last year.

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5. “The number of schools in Minnesota with confirmed COVID-19 cases has tripled twice in the last two weeks. What’s going on?”

Back in mid-September, about two weeks after classes started, schools began to see a significant increase in COVID-19 cases, with the increase among school-age children bigger than that of any other age group in the state.

Schools with cases and exposures were located across the state, with no consistent pattern among the schools on the list in terms of masking policies — some required masks for all students and staff, others did not.

Of particular note was that nearly a third of the schools on the list for that week were high schools, despite the fact that students had been eligible for vaccination for months, with students over 12 eligible for the vaccine after May.

A new more infectious strain, the then dominant deltra strain, and different containment strategies schools were likely reasons for the uptick, with many students returning to school for the first time in 18 months. Now, as students return to classrooms in 2022, the new omicron variant may cause this pattern to repeat.