MN schools to stay open despite growing COVID-19 spread among students

A students walks in a hall with taped arrows on the floor.
A student walks through the halls of Carlton High School while following the marked traffic flow arrows on the floor in September in Carlton, Minn.
Alex Kormann | AP 2020

Data released on Thursday shows that COVID-19 case rates are going up statewide — and they’re affecting younger Minnesotans, especially middle and high school students. In fact, the number of school-related COVID-19 cases reported this week in Minnesota students has now exceeded a peak during a surge of cases in November. 

“The last month-plus has been very worrisome — especially among younger Minnesotans,” said state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm in a news release. 

Still, Minnesota officials are not planning to issue sweeping recommendations or orders for schools to switch students to distance learning. Instead, they are ramping up testing opportunities in an attempt to make it easier for students to get weekly or biweekly COVID-19 tests. 

Schools COVID data
Share of students learning in person by grade
David H. Montgomery | MPR News

“Increasing vaccination and increasing testing can help us protect the ability of schools to stay in person, protect the ability of sports to continue and make possible those very important ceremonies and markers of the end of a school year,” Malcolm said during a news conference Thursday.

Policy changes to Minnesota’s Safe Learning Plan — which governs how schools operate throughout the pandemic — mean that, despite record COVID-19 spread among students, more than 90 percent of Minnesota schools are still offering some form of in-person learning to their students. 

Another big factor is that the majority of Minnesota school staff have now had the opportunity to be vaccinated. 

Burnsville schools’ experience 

In Burnsville, more vaccinated staff has meant that, unlike last fall, teachers aren’t having to constantly quarantine out of classrooms. 

“Very often now, even if a staff member was a close contact [of someone infected with COVID-1]), the next sentence is, ‘But they’ve been fully vaccinated so they don’t have to quarantine,’ ” said Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District 191 communications director Aaron Tinklenberg.

But the case rate growth has still noticeably affected the school district and other Minnesota districts. 

“We’ve had over the last few weeks an uptick in cases and certainly an uptick in the number of people who’ve been close contacts and needed to be quarantined,” Tinkleberg said. 

Now, however, it’s not just that students are quarantining like they were in the fall — more and more students at Burnsville and in other districts are actually testing positive for the virus. 

The virus spread has added yet another job to the work schools are doing: contact tracing. 

In the Burnsville school district, school nurses are the ones who, after a student tests positive for COVID-19, then spend time tracking that student’s movements throughout the day, reviewing video of bus rides, and contacting the families of anyone who’s come in close contact. 

The district is also attempting to move ahead with plans for its end-of-year school celebrations.

Schools COVID data
Share of Minnesota students by learning model
David H. Montgomery | MPR News

Graduation, for example, might be held outside. In the case of inclement weather, the district would move the ceremonies to a different day instead of moving them indoors. Another possibility? Splitting students into groups in order to facilitate socially distanced ceremonies. Similar planning is going into prom. 

“The goal is to try to offer those things that really didn’t happen,” Tinklenberg said. “Things can change in a matter of days or weeks, so the hope would be that by mid-May the cases are in a better place and we can feel a little bit more comfortable about having an event.”  

‘A common misperception’

Studies have shown that most children who get COVID-19 are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms. But 10 percent will develop severe disease, and of those, some will develop critical illness that requires intensive care.

“A common misperception is still with us that even if kids do get COVID-19, it’s not that big of a deal because they don’t get very sick,” Malcolm said on Thursday. “In fact, some do get very sick. And we do not yet fully understand the long-term health impacts on kids.” 

Multi-inflammatory syndrome — a serious and sometimes deadly complication that can sometimes develop in children who’ve had COVID-19 — has been diagnosed in 81 Minnesota children since the start of the pandemic. Children can also develop long-hauler syndrome after becoming infected with the virus. Death in children from COVID, however, is extremely rare — two Minnesota children have died of the disease since the start of the pandemic. 

Minnesota officials continue to warn about these dangers to children, but have also noted that keeping children home from school and sports and extracurriculars can affect them in other ways: social isolation, for example, can be detrimental to children’s mental health.

“It is precisely so that we can keep going on in-person learning and these other valuable activities that we’re encouraging people to not let down their guard on those other mitigation efforts and in fact to step it up when it comes to testing and vaccination,” Malcolm said. 

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based on the Minnesota Department of Health's cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.

The coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.

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