Schools should be ready for online and in-person learning this fall, state guidance says

    A teacher readies her classroom. Photo by Dave Einsel/Getty Images.

    Minnesota health and education officials released guidance Thursday to help K-12 schools plan for fall 2020 — although there’s no word yet on whether schools will reopen or continue distance learning in September.

    The Minnesota Department of Health and Department of Education instructed school districts to plan for three scenarios: in-person classes for all students; a combination of in-person and distance learning; and distance learning only. By July 27, Gov. Tim Walz will announce a decision for the start of the school year.

    The guidance includes requirements and recommendations for school staff that cover social distancing, cleaning, physical and mental wellness, transportation and academics in each scenario. If in-person classes resume this fall, schools will have to implement safety measures including marking the floor at 6-foot intervals, screening all students and staff for COVID-19 symptoms and restricting nonessential visitors.

    Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Heather Mueller said safety first. 

    “The most important thing is that our students feel like your school community — whether they’re interacting with that community in person, or in a hybrid or distance learning model — is a safe and welcoming place for them,” she said.

    The “hybrid” model comes with additional rules, like capping building and bus capacity at 50% or fewer and requiring social distancing in all classrooms, buses and other spaces. Masks would be strongly recommended but not required.

    The state will base its fall 2020 decision on Minnesota’s recent COVID-19 data as officials try to balance health risks with the importance of getting kids back to school, said Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm. Although children are less likely to become seriously ill from COVID-19, they can still spread the virus to vulnerable adults.

    In hopes of limiting surges, the approach might vary throughout the year by region or individual school, Mueller said. For example, one school experiencing an outbreak might move to distance learning while schools in a neighboring county use a hybrid model, she said.

    Districts are also expected to address equity issues and particularly “learning loss” — the phenomenon where students lose academic progress during breaks — in their plans. The schools should consider access to technology, tutoring and extracurricular activities for students who need them most and mental health support, Mueller said.

    Low-income students, students who are learning English and students with disabilities were most affected by the cancellation of the school year, raising concerns that Minnesota’s already wide educational disparities could worsen as a result of school closures.

    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.