Minnesota’s rules for going back to school: What you need to know

Desks sit distant from each other in a gym.
Students work in a gym at Banfield Elementary in Austin, Minn., that has been repurposed so they can work on activities and engage in distance learning while implementing social distancing.
Courtesy of Austin Public Schools

Updated: Aug. 7, 2020 | Posted: July 30, 2020

Gov. Tim Walz has announced guidelines for how public K-12 and charter schools should reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Walz said the plan is based on local needs and data. It calls for prioritizing a return to in-person classroom instruction, but leaves it up to districts to decide whether their schools will begin the year in buildings, online or in a hybrid model of the two. 

It also gives parents the latitude to keep their children home from school if they aren’t comfortable returning to in-person instruction. Officials said at the time of the announcement that staff who don't want to return to in-person instruction can also work from home. But the executive order states it is only “to the extent possible” if their or their family members’ health is at risk.

The state’s reopening plan involves two primary components: First, it asks school leaders to root their approach in the available data assessing the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic in their communities.

Second, it requires schools to configure their buildings and processes to allow for social distancing — and to provide students, teachers and staff with masks and other tools meant to prevent the spread of the disease.

Walz said the guidelines follow the latest research and are designed to keep schools safe for students and staff. He also reiterated his desire for children to get back into the classroom, saying they thrive when they’re fostering connections with others.

Here’s what you need to know about the new guidance — and what it might mean for you, your child or your community.

What will happen in schools this September?

It depends. The governor’s plan offers guidelines for districts — and individual schools — to follow, depending on the spread of COVID-19 in their area. It requires them to design their physical spaces and practices in keeping with social distancing and other coronavirus prevention measures. 

And while it emphasizes a move toward in-person schooling, officials say, it prioritizes the safety and health of students, teachers and staff.  

Each school district must have and communicate a plan for in-school teaching, distance learning or a hybrid of the two a week before their school year is set to begin – including pre-kindergarten programs. State leaders say that everyone should be prepared for those plans to shift from one approach to another, should the COVID-19 situation in a district or region change.

They have also put in place measures intended to allow families to opt out of in-person learning — or to opt in to in-person child care — if they determine it best meets their needs.

What will my district — or my kid’s school — look like?

Again: It depends.

Walz said his guidance is not a strict uniform policy, but rather a set of standards that schools will have to work within as they tailor their own plans. 

Districts have already spent several months preparing for the possibilities of in-person instruction, online learning or a hybrid model. Immediately following the state’s announcement, Minneapolis Public Schools officially informed families they will start the school year remotely. St. Paul Public Schools indicated it would likely do the same

State health officials have created a guide that uses county-level data to help schools decide which route to take — and when to adjust. It considers the number of cases within a county per 10,000 people over a 14-day average. If there are more than 50 cases during that timeline, all schools in the impacted district should switch to distance learning for all grades. 

Slides show the plan for reopening schools
Education department slides obtained by MPR News show the plans that will allow for a mix of reopening schools by distance learning, in-person or a hybrid of the two.
Courtesy Image

State officials clarified that these are only recommendations, and that in addition to the number of cases in their surrounding area, schools should consider how well equipped their facilities are to implement safety measures.

A district may also decide to implement different strategies by age group, with health officials urging them to prioritize in-person learning for younger students.

There are certain requirements schools must meet in their plans if they go the in-person or hybrid learning route.

Slides show the plan for reopening schools
Education department slides obtained by MPR News show the plans that will allow for a mix of reopening schools by social-distanced, in-person, or a hybrid of the two.
Courtesy Image

Will students and staff need to wear masks? 

Yes. If a school is using an in-person or hybrid learning model, there will need to be a masking policy in place. The requirement to wear face coverings extends to all students, staff and anyone else on school grounds or using school transportation.

Much like with the recent statewide mandate, there are exceptions for anyone who has trouble breathing, anyone who is unable to remove their mask without assistance “or anyone who cannot tolerate a face covering due to a developmental, medical, or behavioral health condition.” Children 2 years old and younger should not wear face coverings.

A father helps his daughter wear a mask.
Olivia Chan's father helps her with a new mask she received during a graduation ceremony for her pre-K class in front of Bradford School in Jersey City, N.J., on June 10.
Seth Wenig | AP

In addition, the state announced it will provide PPE for staff and students. The plans for distribution include:

  • One cloth mask for every K-12 student

  • One cloth mask for every teacher and staff member

  • Three disposable face masks per student, in case a student or staff member forgot or misplaced the original one. 

  • A face shield for every licensed teacher and half of non-licensed staff

The use of face shields will be allowed for the following groups:

  • Students in kindergarten through eighth grade, when wearing a face covering is problematic.  

  • Teachers, when wearing a face covering may impede the educational process.  

  • Staff, students or visitors who cannot tolerate a face covering due to a developmental, medical or behavioral health condition.  

  • Staff providing direct support student services, when a face covering impedes the service being provided. 

There are also several scenarios in which a face covering is allowed to be temporarily removed, including while eating or drinking, playing an instrument or exercising.

What power do parents have to choose whether their children learn in person or remotely?

The state’s plan requires school districts and charter schools to give families the option to choose distance learning for their student, regardless of their district’s plans.

For parents who don’t want their children to go back to in-person instruction but are unable to stay home, the state plans to provide child care resources

For parents who want to continue distance learning and can’t return to work for health reasons, the state is also offering some unemployment insurance benefits, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan said.

Districts implementing distance or hybrid learning plans will also need to continue providing child care to the children of Tier 1 critical workers at no cost during regular hours. 

Children sit around tables.
Children sit around tables at the St. Paul Midway YMCA Early Childhood Learning Center.
Courtesy of the YMCA

What about teachers’ ability to opt in or out?

The executive order says teachers can work from home “to the extent possible”  if their or their family members’ health is at risk. Department of Education officials say schools should follow their own HR and contract procedures for when employees are requesting accommodation for disability.

Denise Specht, the president of the state's largest teachers union, Education Minnesota, said the state guidance leaves a lot up for interpretation. She said districts will have to abide by federal laws like the Family Medical Leave Act.

“There is a lot of apprehension and anxiety around whether the buildings are going to be ready,” she said. “No one should be forced to work in an environment that puts them and their family in unnecessary risk for getting sick with COVID-19.”

Do districts need approval from the state to implement their plans?

Each district will make its own decision on which approach to take, but they will need to consult with the state Health Department along the way.

As part of the process, public schools will work with public health officials to form a plan that meets health requirements and recommended best practices. It is up to each district to communicate their plans to students and families.

In addition, the state education commissioner has the right to order schools to transition to distance learning if it’s determined their in-person model is no longer safe. The commissioner would make this decision in consultation with the Health Department, which will be monitoring the impact of COVID-19 on schools and the surrounding community.

What happens if a student or staff member tests positive for the virus? 

In the case of an infection, schools are instructed to work with public health officials to determine if the person infected was contagious while on school grounds — and who they may have had close contact with. 

Students and staff who may have been exposed are then instructed to self-quarantine and seek a test either five to seven days after exposure, or if they start exhibiting symptoms. Even if the test comes back negative, it’s recommended that they stay quarantined for a full 14 days — the known incubation period for the virus.

Children are getting their body temperatures checked.
Amid concerns of the spread of COVID-19, teachers check students before a summer STEM camp at Wylie High School in Wylie, Texas.
LM Otero | AP

Those are the first steps, but not the only things schools must consider when responding. If there are several cases, schools are advised to take into account how many cases there are —  and how many weeks apart they are. Sporadic cases are less of a concern than many cases close together. 

Schools are also advised to examine:

  • How likely it was the case originated outside of the school; 

  • If there are any common themes between cases;

  • How many close contacts infected staff or students have, and how likely it is that they disclosed them all;

  • If there’s been an increase in cases in the surrounding community;

  • If the current model is still sustainable if staffing needs to be reduced.

What happens to school sports and other extracurricular activities?

Those decisions are forthcoming and will be up to high school leagues — in consultation with local school and health leaders.

What about food? Will schools continue to feed children?

Yes. Schools must offer contact-less delivery or pickup of meals for students who are learning from home.

They must also discontinue self-service food and beverage distribution in the cafeteria for students learning in person.

A person puts fruit cups and sandwiches in boxes.
Kitchen staff Mary Bartlett packs meals into boxes in March to be delivered to students in the Little Falls school district. In the early days of distance learning, districts worked to meet some of the needs schools typically fill, including food.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News file

How do the guidelines vary by age groups?

Health officials are urging schools to prioritize in-person learning for all students, but especially for the youngest students.

That’s for a few reasons: Studies have shown more limited transmission among younger children; distance learning has proven more difficult for younger students; and in-person learning is understood to be critical to their development.

What are the safety precautions for school buses? 

The requirements for school transportation change according to the model each district adopts. 

But: Face coverings are required on the bus, no matter what. 

Limited capacity to allow for distancing between passengers is only recommended under an in-person educational model, but required under a hybrid approach.

Do the rules apply to private schools? 

Private schools are not bound by the Minnesota Department of Education’s guidance and can make their decisions independently. 

Even before state officials released their guidelines, private schools around the state were seeing a spike in interest from families looking to enroll their children, according to the Star Tribune

The state Education Department, however, is encouraging private schools to let health and safety best practices guide their decisions.

"We do strongly urge them to join us as we are making decisions that are centered on the health and safety of all Minnesotans," an Education Department spokesperson said.

Private schools are required to follow the rules laid out in the statewide mask mandate ordered in July.

What do we know about COVID-19 and kids?

While there have been some cases of serious illness, studies show younger kids tend to get infected less often and have milder symptoms, when compared with adults.

However, there’s still a lot doctors and scientists are learning about this virus and how it spreads. A recently published study suggests older children can spread the virus just as much as adults. Another study found young children carry the coronavirus at high levels, but the study didn’t prove that those children are contagious. 

Have any schools or child care centers seen outbreaks? 

The state reports that of the more than 10,500 licensed child care programs in the state, 125 have had at least one confirmed COVID-19 case, and 38 of those have had two confirmed cases. 

Eight of those centers have had five or more cases.

The majority of those COVID-19 cases have been among staff, and health officials said Thursday there's not a lot of evidence so far that those staffers got the virus from other employees or from kids in their centers.

What questions do you have about schools this fall? What are you planning to do?

We’ll continue to update this page as we learn more about schools’ plans for classes this fall. Tell us what you want to know.

COVID-19 in Minnesota

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