ST. PAUL — Minnesota students will be allowed to return to classrooms this fall, if local school districts determine that's the best fit, state health and education officials announced Thursday, July 30.
Gov. Tim Walz announced that the state would leave the decision on how to resume instruction up to individual districts as long as students, teachers and other staff use masks and social distancing for in-person instruction. The DFL governor said the state would then monitor cases of COVID-19 in each community to determine if schools need to move classes online.
District leaders along with state health and education officials will now decide whether to start the year with in-person instruction, online learning or a combination and get that information out to parents and teachers. Walz said the priority would be for younger students to get in-person instruction.
The announcement comes after the state reported that cases of COVID-19 increased by 745 from a day prior and five more Minnesotans died from the illness. Hospitalizations and intensive care admissions for COVID-19 were also reported to be growing in recent days.
Minnesota districts will have to accommodate families who prefer to have their children learn from home. And the state guidance requires schools to accommodate teachers and staff who want to work from home as much as they can.
For those that do return, school will look very different. Classrooms will be set for social distancing, students and teachers will wear masks, face shields and gowns in some cases.
States around the country are grappling with similar guidance on whether to send students back for in-person instruction and the safest ways to do so. President Donald Trump and his administration have urged schools to reopen for in-classroom learning this fall.
“This is going to be a first day of school unlike any we’ve seen,” Walz said. "We know how important this decision is, we know how included you as parents must be in this and we know you are counting on us, both as your state and as your neighbors, to take care of your children and do the right thing for them, both for the physical health, their mental health and their education."
State health officials are set to determine a county's number of COVID-19 cases per 10,000 over a two-week period to guide local decisions on whether a district could go back to full in-person instruction, partial in-person instruction or distance learning. And they could require a school to move to a different approach if cases climb.
Using data from Thursday, the state said 181 school districts could be prepared to resume full in-person instruction, 107 could be eligible for a mix of in-person and online learning and nine districts would be in the threshold to use distance learning. But they cautioned that those figures could change and that local buildings or parent opinions could impact how schools plan for the academic year.
Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said schools would be expected to announce their plans at the latest seven days prior before the school year is set to start.
The state is set to use $430 million in federal funding to buy face coverings for teachers, students and staff; increase testing capacity, and scale up cleaning and technology for schools. And state health and education officials said that health and safety would be top priorities in determining if schools could transition back to in-person learning.
"We know that there will be cases of COVID in our schools and the key will be how well can we identify that, assess that and control that right away," Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said. "The virus will continue to evolve and so will these plans."
The flexible approach drew support from physicians, who said observing COVID-19 data in real-time and adapting accordingly would be key to limiting the disease's spread.
"The ability to change at a district level based on the needs of the community, I think, is going to be very, very important," said Dr. Jonathan KenKnight, section chairman for pediatrics at Essentia Health's St. Mary's Medical Center in Duluth. "In a situation where you have different infection rates all over the state and all over the country, it's impossible to do a one size fits all and that would be dangerous and not at all good for our students, and families and not at all good for our economy."
As districts mulled whether to return to in-classroom learning, teachers stressed the importance of ensuring that protocols were in place to keep students and educators safe. Education Minnesota President Denise Specht on Twitter said the state's largest teacher's union would press the state and districts to set a high bar for going back for in-person instruction.
“Physically opening school buildings to our students will take a tremendous amount of work from everyone in the school community —school board members, administrators, educators and parents — before we can do it safely,” Specht said. “We cannot be bullied by arbitrary start dates on the calendar or settle for ‘safe enough’ because that’s all an underfunded district can afford. In-person and hybrid learning shouldn’t start until our schools are ready.”
A Minnesota Department of Education parent survey in June found that 64% of parents preferred to have students return for in-person instruction this fall, whereas an Education Minnesota survey of teachers last week found that 49% of those surveyed preferred distance learning, with 29% opting for a hybrid model and 17% saying they'd like to return to the classroom full time.
Republican lawmakers on Thursday said they were glad to see decisions be directed to local leaders, but worried the state would issue mandates that don't match local preferences. Democrats, meanwhile, supported it.
"It’s really frustrating the governor made parents wait to learn about the plans today, and in reality, we’ll need to wait a few more weeks based on this plan," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said in a news release. "I trust our locally-elected school boards and school administrators to make decisions, and I am concerned the governor retains his power to unilaterally direct schools back to distance learning."
Duluth News Tribune reporter Adelle Whitefoot contributed to this report from Duluth.