6 things to know about what school will look like this fall

Desks sit distant from each other in a gym.
This spring, children of essential workers sit in a gym at Banfield Elementary in Austin, Minn. The gym was repurposed so students enrolled in the school's child care program could work on activities and engage in distance learning while implementing social distancing.
Courtesy of Austin Public Schools

Updated: June 22, 1:08 p.m. | Posted: June 18, 6:31 p.m.

What will school look like this fall in Minnesota? The short answer is — we don’t know yet. On Thursday, Minnesota’s health and education officials released guidance to help Minnesota’s public schools plan for the coming school year.

Under the planning guide, schools are being asked to have three plans on hand so they can pivot quickly from one to another if needed, depending on how widespread the virus becomes in the fall.

Officials have said they won’t release their decision on what form the upcoming academic year will take until late July.

Here are six things we know about Minnesota's upcoming school year:

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1) What are the three different scenarios for school the next academic year? 

  • Scenario 1: All students will go back to school as usual. They will be in school buildings, following a bunch of health guidelines to try to minimize exposure to COVID-19. But they won’t be expected to do things like staying 6 feet away from one another. Officials say they’ll choose this model if it looks like COVID-19 metrics are stabilizing or improving in Minnesota.

  • Scenario 2: Schools will implement something officials are calling a “hybrid model.” This means there will be both distance learning and in-person learning. Schools will limit the number of people in buildings and on buses to half of their maximum capacity. Officials might choose this scenario if COVID-19 cases start getting worse in Minnesota or in parts of Minnesota.

  • Scenario 3: Schools will go to 100 percent distance learning — no in-person classes. 

Reminders for people to wash hands and cover coughs.
Notes on a dry erase board provides a reminder to students who are participating in emergency child care at Banfield Elementary.
Courtesy of Austin Public Schools

Minnesota officials are telling districts to plan for all of these scenarios.

It’s possible they’ll start the year with one scenario and then ask all or some schools to switch to a different scenario part way through the academic year, depending on what happens with how the virus tracks in the state as a whole or in certain regions of the state. 

2) What if families, students, teachers or staff don’t want to go back to in-person classes because of health or other reasons? 

Schools are supposed to offer a distance learning option to any students or families that want or need it. So, if schools open up, and a family doesn’t want to send their student back to in-person learning for any reason, the school is supposed to provide them an option for continuing to learn while staying at home. 

Schools also need to make accommodations for staff in high-risk health categories if there is a return to in-person learning this fall. Although the guidance doesn’t specifically address it, a state education spokesperson confirmed to MPR News that the accommodations do extend to educators and other staff, and that schools must follow any applicable labor agreements and employment policies.

3) What do school leaders think of this plan?

This is an extremely ambitious plan that gives school leaders, teachers and families only a few weeks to prepare. They need to hire staff, figure out budgets and work out multiple physical-distancing scenarios to feed and educate all of their students.

Many school leaders have expressed both understanding of the need to take this approach, and frustration with how late this guidance is coming. 

4) What do state Republicans think of this plan, which is coming from the administration of DFL Gov. Tim Walz? 

Senate Republicans say state education officials shouldn’t be making this call for the entire state. Instead they want locally elected school boards and superintendents to make decisions for themselves about what the upcoming school year should look like.

“Gov. Walz should allow each district and school to make the decision that is best for them, just like the colleges and universities have done,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, in a statement.

5) Why are state officials waiting until the end of July to make a decision? 

Minnesota officials say they are watching COVID-19 metrics in the state to make their decision about which scenario to choose. They say they’re trying to balance the critical role education plays in society with public health goals and public health needs. 

“We’re trying to balance the importance of education with public health goals,” said Kris Ehresmann, Minnesota’s infectious disease director.

Opening schools is going to be key to opening Minnesota’s economy, to the well-being of children and families and to educating future generations. But there are a lot of obvious risks for public health that happen when you gather hundreds of children and adults in crowded  buses and school buildings during a pandemic.

6) Does state education officials’ new guidance contain any specific measures to address the unequal ways Minnesota students are being impacted by distance learning and COVID-19? 

Distance learning has been very difficult for a lot of Minnesota students. Among those who have been disproportionately affected are students with disabilities, homeless students, students from immigrant families. What’s more, decades of metrics show that Minnesota schools are much better at serving white students than students of color. 

The new guidance from the Minnesota Department of Education instructs school leaders and educators to “ask how your actions are reinforcing or removing structural inequity.” There are several ways the department suggests schools do that. One example: The Education Department has told schools in some cases to direct certain funds to meet “the needs of historically underserved populations.”