Minn. Senate passes bill to stop future school closures

Kids wearing face masks exit a school bus.
Children exit a bus as prekindergarten through second grade students returned for in-person learning on Jan. 19 at Park Brook Elementary in Brooklyn Park, Minn.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News file

The Minnesota Senate passed legislation Thursday to prevent the governor from using peacetime emergency powers to close schools, alter school schedules or curtail school activities.

Lawmakers voted 40-27 in favor of the bill, with some Democrats joining Republicans on the prevailing side.

Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, said her bill returns authority to where it belongs, with local school district leaders.

“Schools make decisions based upon the individual needs of their districts all the time,” Nelson said. “It’s just not possible for the governor to unilaterally make one decision that fits all of the schools in all or our 87 counties with all of their different needs.”

The Senate action came a day after DFL Gov. Tim Walz announced a rollback of the school restrictions he imposed last year in response to COVID-19.

But Nelson stressed that the bill is still needed.

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“We must prevent this disaster from happening again,” she said.

A companion bill in the House has not received a hearing.

Several Democrats spoke against the bill. Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, suggested Republicans were trying to score political points against the governor. Sen Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, said it would be irresponsible to revoke a governor’s emergency authority.

“Do not tie the hands, do not gag the governor or a future governor, whoever he or she might be,” Wiger said.

Wiger also claimed the move to fully open schools amid the pandemic would put “one million” students and staff at risk.

Several Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, argued that the return can be done safely. Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, wants all students back in classrooms full time.

“All the science, all the data points to this as a clear direction that we can go,” Gazelka said. “And to not do it is probably the biggest mistake that our governor is going to make over this whole COVID epidemic.”