‘Students, we’re ready’: Walz announces plan to bring middle and high schoolers back to class

    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’s middle and high school students could be back in school as soon as Feb. 22 under an update to the state’s learning plan announced Wednesday by Gov. Tim Walz. 

    The state will allow schools to resume in-person classes at least part-time for middle and high schoolers starting next week, with the goal of all schools bringing students back to class five days a week by March 8, Walz said during a news conference. 

    Walz and the Minnesota Department of Education have faced increasing pressure to reopen schools for the state’s older students. In January, elementary schools were allowed to resume in-person learning regardless of the spread of COVID-19 in their communities; middle and high schools have been using distance learning, in-person classes or a mix of the two based on local COVID-19 transmission rates.

    “Students, we’re ready to go. We’re going to get back in school, we’re going to do it safely, and we’re going to beat this thing,” Walz said. “This is an exciting day, Minnesota. We’re not out of the woods yet — I don’t want to make us believe that there’s not some things we still need to do. But the work has enabled us to do exactly what we wanted.”

    Students will still be able to opt for distance learning when their schools move to in-person classes, said Heather Mueller, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Education. School districts that announced plans to resume in-person learning prior to the state’s update won’t have to change their plans, Mueller said.

    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 when community transmission is already low and adequate safety measures are taken.

    Teachers’ unions and some families, however, say they’re not convinced schools can implement the necessary precautions. Education Minnesota, the union representing more than 80,000 teachers, has urged the state not to reopen schools until all teachers are vaccinated.

    Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has said vaccinating all teachers doesn’t need to be a “prerequisite for reopening schools.” But the CDC also recommends teachers and staff at high risk for COVID-19 be allowed to work remotely until they can be vaccinated.

    Walz said Minnesota’s progress in administering vaccines and reducing COVID-19 spread allows more students to return to class. Still, in-person learning will never be zero-risk, he acknowledged, so schools have to remain vigilant with safety measures like masks and social distancing.

    After experiencing one of the nation’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks in late fall, Minnesota now has one of the lowest rates of COVID-19 case growth in the country. The state recorded roughly 14 new cases per 100,000 residents in the past week, according to the Brown School of Public Health. Minnesota’s test positivity rate has fallen below 5%, a benchmark health officials say indicates relatively controlled spread of the virus.

    More than 25% of teachers have been vaccinated, Walz said. Next week, 18,000 doses of vaccine — a record-high — will be allocated for educators, and by March 8, “we will have the bulk of our educators vaccinated,” he said. 

    The COVID-19 transmission rate among educators who have returned to the classroom is less than 1%, according to Walz’s office.

    Almost all school districts have signed up for the state’s COVID-19 educator testing program, which offers free on-site saliva tests to all teachers every two weeks. The state is working to expand its community and mail-in COVID-19 testing programs to include students ages 12-25, Mueller said.

    The state is changing how it uses data to guide school reopening plans, Mueller said.

    Previously, school districts and health officials relied heavily on county COVID-19 data. Under the updated plan, they’ll still monitor county data, as well as data on the spread of other “influenza-like illnesses” in the community and individual schools. For example, one school seeing a lot of flu cases may transition to distance learning until the wave subsides, while the rest of the district has in-person classes, Mueller said.

    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.