Updated 5 p.m.
Gov. Tim Walz on Thursday called on Minnesota’s public school leaders to make staff and student health their top priorities and, essentially, do the best they can to keep kids in school buildings when classes resume this fall.
Walz and his commissioners rolled out a plan that emphasizes returning to in-person classroom teaching but leaves it to districts to decide whether their school systems will start the year in buildings, online or some combination based on their local COVID-19 conditions.
State experts will provide analytical guidance to districts during the school year to help superintendents decide if they need to tweak their plans.
The state will also fund masks for all school staff and students as well as at-home saliva tests for teachers and staff — including for private schools, which are not bound by the state’s guidance.
“It’s gonna be a first day of school unlike any we’ve seen,” Walz said as he unveiled what he described as a localized, data-driven but “not perfect” plan.
He again implored Minnesotans to wear masks, socially distance and wash their hands to check the spread of the disease. “This plan doesn’t work if community spread accelerates. It will end up impacting our children,” he said. “COVID is not their fault.”
Starting point: County health data
Based on calculations released by Walz’s office using recent data, schools in counties with about 40 percent of the state’s population would be recommended to have all students in classrooms if school started today.
Another 52 percent of the state’s population would have a recommendation of elementary students in schools while upper grades had a mix of in-school and distance learning.
Most of the rest of the state would be recommended to have all students doing a mix of in-person and distance learning. A few schools in hard-hit areas would be recommended to have all students, or those in upper grades, have entirely remote learning.
Health officials will generate a two-week infection rate that districts are expected to use to assess the risk of COVID-19 in schools.
No counties currently have COVID-19 case rates that would require all students to do remote learning. Rates, however, can change as the start of the school year approaches.
“This guidance is not drawn in stone,” Walz said, noting that county boundaries and school district boundaries aren’t the same and that the county-level calculations don’t mean a decision has been made. “We just want the health data to be the starting point for the decision-making.”
Hennepin County, for instance, is suggested for a hybrid model but the Minneapolis Public Schools system confirmed Thursday it expects to start the year with remote instruction.
Walz’s plan requires school districts and charter schools to give families the option to choose distance learning for their student no matter their district’s plans. Officials expect that districts will inform families of their plans at least a week before the start of the school year.
Walz, a former Mankato public school teacher, said he’s been talking to teachers, including a former colleague, about how they feel about returning to school buildings. The governor said his friend conceded he was nervous for staff and kids but that he wanted to get back in the classroom and teach.
“Their default position is to be there,” Walz said of teachers. “Our job is to put them in a safe space.”
Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers union, offered its qualified backing of the Walz plan.
“Physically reopening requires both a low level of community spread and rigorous safety precautions inside a school. At first look, that’s an approach that educators can support,” the union said in a statement while acknowledging a “tremendous amount of work”must be done before buildings can reopen to large numbers of students.
Deb Henton, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, said school leaders wanted the reopening plan to provide flexibility.
“I do believe that our educators in the state are going to be happy with the decision,” she said of the Walz plan. “Some school districts are going to have to be in the full-on distance learning mode that they may not have wanted to be in, but they understand."
Republican Sen. Carla Nelson of Rochester, who chairs the Senate education committee, said while she’s glad it's not a one-size-fits-all plan, she’s not sure if Walz is offering guidance or a mandate.
“Parents and educators want clarity on what the school year will look like. But they really didn’t get that today,” Nelson said. “I’m gravely concerned about state bureaucrats rather local elected school board members making decisions about school openings.”
‘COVID is not going away’
Health officials said they’d consulted with national and international experts about how to handle education as the coronavirus continues to spread.
There will be outbreaks in the schools as at least some kids and teachers go back into the classroom, Jan Malcolm, the state’s health commissioner, said Thursday.
”Unfortunately — and boy we all wish this was different — COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon. It is still very much with us,” she said. “We are still in the growth phase of this pandemic, but we also can't stop attending to the learning needs of Minnesota kids.”
Malcolm said state officials would be ready to help and try to control any outbreaks and make recommendations about when to limit or eliminate face-to-face teaching.
Districts are also being instructed by the state to offer online instruction to any families that prefer it.
St. Paul likely to join Mpls. in full distance learning
Minnesota districts have been making their fall plans for months already, and many have been communicating their decisions and plans to families.
Minneapolis Public Schools confirmed Thursday the district will start the school year remotely. The St. Paul district also indicated its schools will likely do the same. The school district said they expect to have a final plan early next month.
Neither scientists nor officials fully understand the public health implications of reopening schools for in-person learning during the coronavirus pandemic. While some children have become seriously ill with COVID-19, most tend to have milder symptoms than adults. And researchers don’t yet have a good handle on the long-term impacts of getting infected with the virus.
Minnesota public health officials have, however, been keeping track of COVID-19 cases in those child care programs that have been open since March.
Close to 1 percent of Minnesota’s licensed child care programs have had at least one confirmed COVID-19 case.
The majority of cases in those programs have been among staff, and state health officials say there’s not a lot of evidence so far that those staffers got the virus from other employees or from kids in the center.
The Wadena-Deer Creek School District has been planning for all three scenarios — in school teaching, online and hybrid — but leaders there have added a fourth option that would bring K-6 students back full time, while keeping middle and high school students in a hybrid mix of on campus two days a week and distance learning the rest of the week.
School officials asked families to let them know if they'd prefer full-time remote learning. Elementary school principal Louis Rutten said just three or four families expressed interest. The elementary student population is 470 students.
"By and large I think most people would like to have in-person," he said. "We’re going to try to get that to happen and with their help I’m sure we'll be able to keep it as safe as we can."
School officials applauded the state back-to-school guidance, noting that they appreciate that it is data-driven and specific to each region in the state.
“I appreciate the intent of the plan, I think that it’s trying to be based on real-time numbers and it’s trying to give flexibility to different levels of infection across the state,” said David Law, superintendent of Anoka-Hennepin schools, the state’s largest district. “There is just a lot of work we have to do in the next five weeks to interpret it and do it well.”
A quarter of Anoka-Hennepin students live in Hennepin County, which has higher case counts than Anoka County.
It may take a few more weeks before families get final word from their districts, too. Some district are still gathering information on how much of their population will choose full-time distance learning no matter the district's plans.
Some teachers have also expressed concern about returning to school in person. What happens if more teachers than students want to stay home? “Boy, I really hope that that's not the case," said Law.
Districts are exploring a scenario where they’d pair those teachers who might have underlying health conditions and want to work from home with students who want to stay home as well.
"While we’ve become accustomed to having COVID-19 as part of our daily lives, we can’t forget that we’re still in the midst of a global health pandemic,” said Matt Hillman, superintendent of Northfield Public Schools.
“This is an abnormal time,” he added. “Even if we have students in school this fall, it will not look like it has in the past.”
MPR News reporters Brian Bakst and Tim Nelson contributed to this report.
Editor’s note: This story and accompanying graphics have been updated to use case figures provided by the Minnesota Department of Health, which are several weeks out of date at present but which will form the basis for the Department of Education’s guidelines to school districts.