Minnesota schools can reopen if COVID-19 spread is under control, Walz says

Gov. Tim Walz at a press conference announcing a new executive order that eases restrictions on restaurants, gyms, and other areas of the economy on June 5, 2020 in St. Paul, Minn. Photo by Anthony Souffle/Star Tribune.

Minnesota school districts will be allowed to hold in-person school this fall if the spread of COVID-19 is under control in their communities and they can implement safety measures, Gov. Tim Walz announced Thursday.

The state’s reopening guidance allows districts some flexibility in their decisions to resume in-person lessons, remote teaching or a mix of the two this fall. The announcement has the support of some public health experts, but it leaves many families and educators still waiting for answers as the first day of school approaches.

The Minnesota Department of Health and Department of Education will consult with individual school districts this summer to decide how they should start the year, and throughout the year to determine if districts need to switch models, according to the state plan. Local school districts will announce the decision for the start of the school year.

The decision between in-person, hybrid or distance learning depends, in part, on each county’s number of new COVID-19 cases per 10,000 residents. If there are fewer than 10 new cases per 10,000 residents over a 14-day period, schools can hold in-person classes for all students. Schools will return to distance learning if a county has 50 or more new cases per 10,000 residents.

Minnesota’s fall 2020 plan for schools uses COVID-19 county case rates to determine what learning model each district can use.

Schools also need to be able to implement safety measures before they can bring students back to class. For in-person and hybrid learning, schools must have a mask policy and protective gear for people working directly with students, among other steps.

The state will provide one cloth mask and three disposable masks for every student and teacher, Minnesota Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Heather Mueller said. Each teacher will also be provided one COVID-19 saliva test.

Districts will still have the option to continue distance learning, even if they meet the criteria to reopen. Minneapolis Public Schools announced earlier this week that students would start the year remotely, citing logistical issues with a hybrid model and community health concerns. Parents can also opt for remote learning if the district is using in-person or hybrid models.

Earlier this summer, school districts were directed to develop plans for distance learning, in-person classes and a hybrid scenario, and state officials said they should be prepared to switch between them during the year. Walz faced increasing pressure from some Republicans to leave the decision up to districts, rather than issue a statewide edict.

The debate over reopening schools became increasingly fraught this summer, as educators and policymakers worked to balance students’ educational needs with the health and safety of teachers, students and families. Outbreaks across the Sun Belt drove record numbers of infections. 

Distance learning was ineffective for many students and especially difficult for low-income students, students who are learning English and students with disabilities, raising concerns that Minnesota’s educational disparities could worsen as a result of school closures.

Research suggests that children may be less likely to get sick with COVID-19 and experience milder symptoms when they do. And so far, there’s little evidence of schools causing significant community outbreaks in some countries that kept schools open. Still, some experts worry that schools won’t be able to execute reopening plans perfectly, potentially putting staff, families and students at risk.

In a non-scientific state survey of Minnesota parents, the majority of respondents said they’d be comfortable sending students back to school. Parents of color, however, were more likely than white families to say they were not comfortable with the idea of in-person classes.

In a survey of teachers by Education Minnesota, the state teacher’s union, teachers of color were also more likely to indicate a preference for distance learning than white teachers. Overall, about half of respondents said they’d prefer distance learning, and half said they’d rather return to school part-time or full-time with safety measures.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

Safe Learning Plan for the 2020-21 School Year by Rilyn Eischens on Scribd

Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens is a data reporter with the Reformer. Rilyn is a Minnesota native and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.