Interview: Education Commissioner Heather Mueller Reflects On A School Year Like No Other

Esme Murphy spoke with Heather Mueller about how Minnesota schools will move forward (5:42). WCCO Sunday Morning - June 6, 2021

Video Transcript

ESME MURPHY: This past year was a school year like no other with many parents overwhelmed trying to manage distance learning for their kids and their own jobs from home. What will Minnesota schools do to make sure every student gets the kind of evaluation and help they might need? A short time ago, I spoke with Minnesota's commissioner of education, Heather Mueller. And joining us right now, Commissioner Heather Mueller. Thank you so much, Commissioner, for coming on.

HEATHER MUELLER: Thank you very much for having me. I appreciate it. Good morning.

ESME MURPHY: Listen, Commissioner, I'm sure you've heard this from parents, too. I've talked to so many parents, including one just Friday night at an event, who is so concerned about where their child is. They don't know where their child is after a year of distance learning, how they will be evaluated, and what they might need to be at the place they're supposed to be.

HEATHER MUELLER: Sure. Well, I know that that's something that, you know, as parents, we all want to know is where our students are at academically. And I think we not only asked that question about academics, but we also-- how are they doing social emotionally? You know, some of our younger students, we ask, do they have friends? Are they kind to one another? Do they have the opportunity to interact?

And so I think that a couple of pieces that are important is that we know that our schools across the state have really worked, not only before the pandemic, but specifically during the pandemic, to ensure that we know where our students are at. As educators, our job is to really make sure that we know where our students are to provide real, in-time, in-order, in-person when possible experiences to really ensure that each student gets what they need to be on grade level or moving toward grade level.

So a number of our staff across the state and in our school districts and charter schools have progress monitoring tools. They do localized assessments in their classrooms. They know where we are as-- you know, our younger students, where they are with literacy, as well as with numeracy. And so, you know, I would urge that as you have-- are thinking about that, your staff and your teachers know where your students are. And I know that they are always willing to have that conversation to be able to talk about not only where they are, but ideas and strategies about how they might be able to help move forward if that's something that you continue to worry about.

ESME MURPHY: So are you advocating that parents, if they have concerns, bring it to their teacher's attention? Because what I'm hearing from parents--

HEATHER MUELLER: Yeah.

ESME MURPHY: --they'd like some individual attention to their child to see where their child is at in case they need any extra help.

HEATHER MUELLER: Right. Absolutely. And so-- and your teachers know that and expect that.

ESME MURPHY: Let me ask you, what is school going to look like, in terms of masking and social distancing? Because there appears to be signs that there may be-- children as young as two may be eligible this fall for some of these vaccines, but yet not all parents are opting to have their kids vaccinated. What's going to happen to the kids that aren't vaccinated or the teachers that aren't vaccinated?

HEATHER MUELLER: Well, I mean, at this point in time, it's really nothing that-- it really is a decision made as a Department of Education's level. What we know is that if we were to continue in the trends that we are seeing right now, the summer guidance that we have put forward in partnership with the Department of Health would be very similar to what we would move forward in the fall. But again, that's going to continue to be based on--

ESME MURPHY: And is that-- so isn't that the children that are not vaccinated should be wearing masks?

HEATHER MUELLER: Yes, that is the right-- that is the case that that's the recommendation now. In schools, at this point in time, that is strongly recommended, but it is not required. And so that's going to be a decision that our local school boards are going to need to make, along with their superintendents and communities.

What do they want to do about masking? What would they like to do about quarantining? How would they like to be able to handle physical distancing, and what does that look like? At this point in time, the only place where a face mask is required for students of any age is on the school bus, and that's because the CDC had that expectation. And so those will be decisions that are going to be made at the local level.

ESME MURPHY: Let me ask you, just quickly, this is-- every 10 years, you change aspects of the curriculum. This is the year for social studies. You've got conservatives expressing concern that there's going to be a woke agenda or a woke curriculum implemented. Obviously, the curriculum has to change in keeping with these very turbulent times, but how do you respond to that concern?

HEATHER MUELLER: Well, I think there's a couple of things. It's important to note that when we're talking about the social studies standards-- or any standards, for that matter, quite frankly-- the standards are created by Minnesotans for Minnesotans. There is a process that we go through as a state to be able to determine in not only the review, but the determination of whether or not we need to have a revision of that. And so once the-- for example, right now, the social studies standards are now being reviewed and revised and coming together.

It is not a curriculum. It is that these are what our students have to know and be able to do at each grade level to be able to be informed in social studies standards specifically, looking at the areas of civics and government, as well as history, geography, and economics. Those are the four disciplines that have been identified in state statute. In that process, then what that means is that teachers from across the state, as well as experts outside of education in each of those four disciplines come together and talk about whether or not in that process-- what needs to be revised or reviewed and then how do we revise that.

ESME MURPHY: Well, Commissioner Mueller--

HEATHER MUELLER: It has to be--

ESME MURPHY: I'm sorry. We're out of time, but I just-- I really want to thank you for answering some of these questions because I think a lot of parents and families are just wondering what the next school year has in store for them.

HEATHER MUELLER: Yeah. Yes, thank you. Thank you for having us.

ESME MURPHY: Thank you.