State senators on Wednesday gave the first approval to a bill that would remove Gov. Tim Walz’s ability to order schools closed during emergencies like the pandemic.
The bill, introduced by Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, passed out of the Education Finance and Policy Committee along partisan lines. It would limit the governor’s emergency powers, which have allowed Walz to implement business restrictions, expand unemployment benefits and order schools to switch to distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ending Walz’s emergency powers and reopening schools have been top goals for Republicans.
“This is a very targeted approach. It is not eliminating emergency powers. It is just returning to the school districts that authority to choose when and how to open safely,” Nelson said.
Walz ordered all schools to move to distance learning in March, when the pandemic first hit Minnesota. This school year, school districts can use distance learning, in-person classes or a mix of the two based on the spread of COVID-19 in their communities under the state’s “Safe Learning Plan.” Elementary schools were allowed to bring students back to class full-time in January, regardless of COVID-19 case rates.
The debate over reopening schools has become increasingly fraught in Minnesota and across the country. Distance learning, social isolation and other pandemic stressors have had disastrous effects on many students and families. Growing research suggests that schools don’t cause significant COVID-19 spread if adequate safety measures are taken, but teachers’ unions and some families say they’re not convinced schools can implement the necessary precautions.
Sen. Mary Kunesh, DFL-New Brighton, said the committee’s conversation should include teachers and school staff. Sending educators back to the classroom could put them at risk and result in staffing shortages if teachers can’t come to school because they’re ill or quarantining, she said.
Deb Hinton, director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, said her association, the School Board Association and Association of Metropolitan School Districts don’t believe the bill is necessary. They haven’t always been happy with the state’s changes to the education plan, but the governor has access to critical information that districts don’t, she said.
“We envision many potential problems for having all 330 school districts and 160 charter schools implement their own strategies for how to deal with a situation like this,” Hinton said.
Mayo Clinic anesthesiologist Dr. Bridget Pulos spoke in support of the measure. When schools closed last year, Pulos had to care for her three children alone while her husband was in Afghanistan, providing medical care for American servicemembers. The stress didn’t let up this year, as businesses were allowed to reopen and her children’s schools stayed closed, she said.
“My personal experience has been that the prolonged and unnecessary school closures during this current school year have been more difficult for our family than that initial time,” Pulos said. “Just as our hospitals and our military serve an essential role for our society, school is essential for children.”