What one school board’s decision to 'let them play' means for Minnesota 

A football player catches a ball.
On Monday the Anoka-Hennepin school board voted 5-1 to continue high school sports and extracurricular activities, while transitioning students to distance learning. Above, Blaine High School's Dylan Muyers misses a catch, and pass interference is called on Micha Vayee of Maple Grove High School during the second half of a game Oct. 15.
Leila Navidi | Star Tribune

Last week, Anoka-Hennepin district leaders saw county coronavirus case rates starting to rise in their region. Administrators made the call to end in-person learning for middle and high school students starting next Wednesday. 

Minnesota state public health guidelines say schools that move to full-time distance learning because of COVID-19 spread need to halt extracurricular activities as well. 

But Anoka-Hennepin Superintendent David Law said many in his community were questioning that guidance — and parents were leading the charge. They started a Facebook page called “Let Them Play” to rally support for continuing in-person sports and activities like hockey, football and dance team. Within a few days they had over 3,500 members. Soon state Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, and Sen. John Hoffman, DFL-Champlin, were calling district leaders. 

Anoka-Hennepin officials learned in that moment that community uproar over canceling sports is much more intense than concern over canceling in-person classes.

“The Let Them Play Facebook page out of our district has over 3,000 followers,” Law said. “There’s nothing comparable that says ‘Let them be in school.’”

On Monday the Anoka-Hennepin school board voted 5-1 to continue high school sports and extracurricular activities, while transitioning students to distance learning. 

The decision from Minnesota’s largest school district exposes fissures in the state health guidelines aimed at keeping schools safe. Other districts are likely watching Anoka-Hennepin’s experience and could make similar decisions going forward as they try to resume the normal rhythms of the school year. 

Gov. Tim Walz reacted coolly Tuesday to news of the district’s decision. He said he was nervous about sports and other extracurricular activities taking precedence over getting kids back into the classroom. The health of students, teachers and the community should always be the top priority, Walz said.

“I understand the desire to make sure these activities stay available for kids,” said Walz, a former high school teacher and coach. “I have got an eighth grader that I want to see playing these things. But we also have to manage it with the public health.”

Anoka-Hennepin is not the only district to continue in-person sports even as they send students home for distance learning. St. Cloud recently announced a similar decision. But when a district as big as Anoka-Hennepin makes this kind of move, school administrators around the state pay attention. 

Law said almost a dozen superintendents have reached out to him, saying they wanted to see what happened because their boards were interested in making the same decision. 

Deb Henton, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, said many districts have made the difficult decision to transition to distance learning and cancel sports as COVID-19 case levels have climbed. They’ve gotten a lot of pushback from parents, coaches and students for those decisions. Anoka-Hennepin’s move might cause them to rethink their decision, she said. 

“I know now some school districts that are on distance learning and have ceased activities are looking at whether or not the state is going to step in and overturn that decision of the school board,” Henton said.  

But Wendy Hatch, a spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Education, said Tuesday that state education officials did not see the Anoka-Hennepin school board’s vote as an act of defiance. 

County case rate data is only the starting point for districts to begin making decisions about whether or not to change learning models. There are many other factors to consider, “like how many students and school staff have been infected and how many are considered a close contact of a confirmed case and are quarantining,” Hatch said. 

Although Anoka-Hennepin’s regional case rate data had gone up, there were other data points suggesting the district didn’t need to move to distance learning, Hatch said. Those schools that are choosing a more conservative learning mode than what state health officials recommend are allowed to continue in-person extra curricular activities. 

State health officials have identified 62 outbreaks among Minnesota high school age youth attending or participating in sports activities. 41 of those outbreaks have occurred since August 1.

Law, the superintendent, said members of his community saw the flexible rules around what data to use in decision making — and examples of places like St. Cloud that had kept high school sports after canceling in-person learning — as a possibility to push for high school sports.

“There was some inconsistency around the state on which students were allowed to participate,” Law said. “Those parents felt like, whether or not their kids are in school, they can safely participate [in sports].”

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