WILLMAR — Many parents will tell you that navigating distance learning for their children can be a frustrating effort.

Everyone, schools and families alike, was thrown into it with little warning or preparation in March when the pandemic first arrived in Minnesota. When the state closed school buildings and sent children home, schools and families had little time to prepare to finish the school year long distance.

School districts used the summer to prepare their buildings to bring students back when possible and to develop better teaching strategies for distance learning in case they were unable to be in the buildings.

School officials say things are going better this year when students are studying from home. However, the situation is still difficult for immigrant parents who are still learning English. Even if they understand some English, it may not be enough to understand their children’s schoolwork.

At a gathering of Somali-American parents recently in Willmar, many parents voiced frustration with overseeing education at home.

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For Tahir Abdile, who has lived in Willmar seven years, having four children going to school at home is difficult. He has a strong internet connection, so that wasn’t a problem, he said.

“One of the challenges with kids going to school, I have to be there,” he said through interpreter Ahmedfowzi Ismail. “I can’t even go for a walk, and I can’t help that much because I don’t speak English.”

For Hussein Jirow, a grandfather, school at home with four grandkids was not easy.

“At school their teachers can make sure they do their homework, make sure they keep up with the class,” he said.

At home, it’s hard to know if that’s happening. “We don’t know what they are doing, actually,” he said.

Jirow said he doesn’t know if the children are learning what they are supposed to.

“I talk to them, ‘Are you sure you are learning?’ and they said, ‘yes, yes, we have just finished learning.’”

In the gathering at the Community Integration Center in downtown Willmar, other parents expressed similar worries.

Ismail, the interpreter and the center’s executive director, said many wish for a Somali-speaking teacher they could contact to talk about their kids. Or at least more Somali speakers in the schools.

Carrie Thomas, director of teaching and learning for Willmar Public Schools, said the district has a number of bilingual employees who can speak with immigrant parents.

Carrie Thomas, director of teaching and learning for Willmar Public Schools
Carrie Thomas, director of teaching and learning for Willmar Public Schools
The distance learning has caused a disruption for all families, she said, and she knows it’s particularly difficult for students and parents with limited English skills.

The district used the summer to develop a more organized distance learning plan, she said, and that has seemed to help.

The district purchased iPads for all elementary students, which standardizes what their class meetings look like. Before, families were using devices ranging from laptops to cellphones, and a class could look different on each device.

It helped, too, that the district had all students in the buildings in the fall, even if some were there partial weeks. It let elementary students learn to use their iPads in the classroom first.

Gov. Tim Walz announced in mid-December that he wants to bring elementary students back to their schools as soon as possible in the new year.

“Ideally, we want them all back,” Thomas said.

Some of the distance learning has been necessary because of positive cases or quarantines because of exposure to positive cases among the school staff.

“It takes a lot of adults to run those buildings for kids,” she said.

Overall, families and school staff are “handling it as best as they can,” she said. “People are being kind and patient.”

Thomas said the school district wants to know about frustrations or obstacles families face.

The current situation is not ideal for anyone, she said, and “I’m frustrated that I can’t fix it.”

She suggested parents first try to reach their children’s teacher or school building. If a parent calls a building’s main office, the person who answers the phone will be able to find someone to return the call, she said.

“We can’t help what we don’t know about,” she said. “We definitely need that two-way communication.”

No one thinks the current situation is ideal, she said. “Hopefully, soon, we’ll be back together.”

It’s hard to know yet how much distance learning will affect children’s longer-term academic achievement, Thomas said.

“We have always been concerned about reading, now even more so,” she said. “One of the biggest factors for student success in reading is volume.”

A concern is that children probably aren’t reading as much as they do when they are at school. The district has increased digital libraries to give kids more reading materials on their iPads to supplement the books they may have in their homes.

Distance learning has presented a problem for the parents who come to the Community Integration Center, said Ismail, the director.

The center's outreach workers Farhan Mohamud and Huda Ismail often speak with parents and try to help immigrants with other issues.

Huda Ismail was hired to help with education issues. She has worked with students in the K-12 system and in college.

Her goal is to provide mentorship and advice for students as they face challenges of first-generation Americans.

“In the first generation, language is a barrier,” she said. “Families don’t know what the resources are or how to find them.”

Ahmedfowzi Ismail said the needs of the families are great, and parents worry they are not helping their kids. There’s a need for more community outreach workers to help families

The Community Integration Center, supported by grants, has limited resources to help families, Mohamud said, and the needs are great.

Parents want to know what their children are learning and what they do at school during the day, but it’s difficult sometimes to find someone who can tell them about their child specifically.

Cultural liaisons in the schools translate for parents, but they are too few and often have too much to do, Mohamud said.