As a classroom teacher for more than 20 years, I know firsthand how resilient, strong, and flexible our students and educators are. There’s nobody better suited for a challenge. But COVID-19 has posed unprecedented questions about the balance of public health and education that simply have no easy answers.
We know Minnesotans have conflicting feelings about the upcoming school year. Some families are afraid for the safety of our students and the families they go home to. Others are eager to get children back into the classroom, where our kids learn best. Many more feel a mixture of both and we all worry for the health of our teachers and school staff. As both a former teacher and the parent of a child in public school, I am committed to providing the best education to our students while keeping them and their educators safe.
I followed three principles as I worked with the Departments of Health and Education on a plan for the 2020-21 school year. First, our top priority was the safety, health, and well-being of students, staff, and families. Second, we continue to make data-driven decisions, leaning on science and research to make the best decisions for our state. And finally, we would respect the importance of local school districts, their expertise of their unique communities, and their commitment to making the best decisions for their students.
A localized, data-driven approach
That is why we are taking a localized, data-driven approach to the 2020-21 school year that will put student and staff safety first. By bringing together the local education leaders who know their students, staff, and communities the best with the public health experts who know the virus the best, this plan will help determine a learning model that makes the most sense for each community.
School districts and charter schools will begin in one of three models: in-person, distance learning, or a hybrid model. Experts at the Departments of Health and Education will partner with local school districts and charter schools to help determine which learning model they should use to start the school year. While there are many factors to consider, the decision-making process will center on local data indicating the prevalence of COVID-19 in the surrounding county.
Throughout the school year, we will need to be flexible and adapt with the fluid nature of this pandemic. The Departments of Education and Health will work with school districts and local health professionals to consistently track the virus to determine if and when a school may need to adjust their learning plan.
Families can choose distance learning
School districts and charter schools will be required to ensure all families have the option to choose distance learning for their student. Teachers and staff will be given similar flexibility to the extent possible. As we switch between models, the plan prioritizes keeping younger children in the classroom because transmission is less likely for younger children and in-person learning is particularly critical at their developmental stage.
With an investment of more than $430 million, we will support our schools, educators, students, and families through this uncertain time. We will provide face coverings for every student, educator, and staff member. We will deploy a comprehensive testing plan for educators and staff. We will help cover costs for cleaning supplies and technology needs, and we will create strategies for child care throughout the state.
School districts and public health officials have a lot of important work to do, but the ultimate success of this process isn’t just up to them. It’s also in the hands of each and every Minnesotan. Our schools reflect their surrounding communities. For this to work, we need Minnesotans to come together to slow the spread of COVID-19. We need everyone to do their part to help get our kids and our teachers back in the classroom safely.
Tim Walz is the governor of Minnesota.
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