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Across Minnesota, and on a national level, teachers and parents of English learner students are advocating to waive the ACCESS test this year as it could pose a health risk to populations highly vulnerable to COVID-19. Locally, Faribault and Owatonna residents have become active in the movement. (Metro Creative Images)

For Muna Hersi, a former refugee and an Owatonna parent, the possibility that her children may need to take a standardized test during the pandemic weighs heavy.

Many immigrant families work in large food manufacturing sectors where there have been outbreaks of COVID-19, said Hersi, and when one person becomes sick with COVID-19, it affects the whole family. Quarantining is difficult in small apartments and trailers, where many immigrant families live, she said. If students need to take the standardized ACCESS test in person during the pandemic, it poses a similar risk to families already struggling.

Although she admitted she was nervous to do so, Hersi spoke out about the planned tests and more to a virtual crowd Monday evening during a national rally to forego this year’s ACCESS test, which takes about a month to complete.

ACCESS, which stands for Assessing Comprehension and Communication in English State-to-State for English Language Learners, evaluates the English progression of multilingual students annually. But during a pandemic year, many EL educators and parents believe that expecting students to take the test is not only counterproductive but imposes an increased health risk for students and those in their households.

The conversation has sparked a movement not only in Rice County but throughout Minnesota and the nation. Advocates first wrote letters supporting postponement of the test, a request the Minnesota Department of Education granted this week. But that was only the first step. At Monday’s rally, educators from rural, urban and suburban Minnesota, and even the CEO and coordinator of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education, called on the federal government to waive the it altogether.

“I ask our federal government to ensure the small amount of time we have left of instruction to be used on learning, on reconnecting with kids, ensuring that our students have a safe place that cares for them so they can do what they love and work toward achieving their dreams,” Hersi said.

“Don’t use the time to do a test that often incorrectly tells them they are lacking in English. My kids, our kids, aren’t lacking. They are gifted with multiple cultures, multiple languages; give them the opportunity to share it instead of trying to improve their English. I say no to the ACCESS test this year.”

Two other local voices, both from Faribault, spoke at the rally. Faribault Public Schools Multilingual and Equity Coordinator Sam Ouk facilitated the event, and School Board member Carolyn Treadway agreed to represent the Faribault School Board.

Treadway thanked MDE for extending ACCESS testing for over 800 EL students in Faribault’s K-12 population and urged MDE to now advocate strongly for a federal waiver. She described the challenges diverse populations have encountered during the pandemic, including food insecurity, job loss and crowded living conditions as well as academic struggles that come with remote learning.

With Rice County’s 14-day COVID-19 case rate at 77 per 10,000 on Jan. 7, Treadway explained that Latinx and African American families, who have a higher incidence of COVID-19 than their white counterparts, want their children out of school until the health risk is gone.

Because of the academic gaps that EL students experience during the pandemic, Treadway said these students “need every opportunity to continue their learning uninterrupted.”

“Requiring them to engage in four weeks of missed classroom instruction as well as EL support so they can participate in ACCESS testing absolutely flies in the face of equity and equitable education,” Treadway said. “I ask the new secretary of education, in the strongest terms possible, please extend a federal waiver for ACCESS testing this year. Faribault EL students as well as English language learners across the United State deserve no less.”

Educators from various areas of the state also described how the ACCESS test would infringe upon their already limited learning time.

Carolyn Bizien, EL teacher at Elton Hills Elementary School in Rochester, explained that expanding the test window shaves off more classroom time for her students. During a normal school year, she said EL students already miss minimally a month of classroom time to take the ACCESS test. When students can safely return to school, Bizien said she’d rather help them regain their footing in the classroom than push them directly into standardized testing.

St. Cloud Area Schools Multilingual Learning Director Kelly Frankenfield said many of the EL students in her district are from refugee experienced families, and this impacts their response to COVID-19. She cited a document MDE published in spring 2020 called “COVID-19 Guide to Supporting Immigrant and Refugee-Experienced Families,” which says, “Parents and community members are concerned about the impact of ‘social’ or ‘physical’ distancing on refugee-experienced students and families. These concerns are consistent with what mental health experts observe as vicarious or tertiary trauma, whereby the mainstream community’s response to COVID-19 can retrigger wartime and post-war type isolation, anxiety and fear.”

Other speakers representing various populations in Minnesota included Carissa Lick, elementary EL teacher at St. James Public Schools; Amy Hewett-Olatunde, EL teacher at LEAP High School in St. Paul; Kristina Robertson, EL supervisor for Roseville Area Schools; and Cherie Haas, English as a second language teacher at Triton Public Schools in Dodge Center.

Reflecting on the rally a day later, Faribault Schools’ Ouk said he especially liked that Jorge Garcia, CEO and coordinator of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education, called out the injustices happening in terms of racial inequity.

Garcia called the movement to waive the ACCESS test “a struggle for basic survival,” not about the values of the testing results, but about placing students who are already at high risk of COVID-19 into an even higher risk testing environment for the sake of a policy.

“There is no law that requires a child to take this test,” Garcia said. “These are state policies that could easily be changed. All it takes is one person who is willing to listen, but also who is willing to hear. One person could change that policy, one person with common sense, one person with empathy, one person with courage can say no to institutional racism and yes to common sense, health, safety and life. Any good manager can follow policy and do things right. It takes a leader to do the right things. It takes a courageous leader who is willing to listen, to hear our pleas: We can’t breathe.”

Reporter Misty Schwab can be reached at 507-333-3135. Follow her on Twitter @APGmisty. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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