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Districts to choose their own back-to-school approach in Minnesota, with some key guidance from state officials

Here’s what you need to know about the baseline criteria set by the state.

Gov. Tim Walz speaking at Thursday afternoon's press conference.
Gov. Tim Walz speaking at Thursday afternoon's press conference.
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On Thursday afternoon, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced that he’s leaving the big back-to-school format decision up to public school districts and charter schools.

That means some may opt to continue with remote learning, while others may opt to implement a hybrid model, or implement a fully in-person model. School administrators must, however, consult with experts at the state departments of health and education as they finalize their plans, and as they modify their learning formats based on changing COVID-19 trends in their communities.

This flexibility leaves room for districts to move forward with new formats many have been exploring over the summer months — whether it includes divvying up in-person learning days among the various grade levels, or spreading elementary students out across secondary buildings, or some other arrangement.

“With this approach, we are pairing the knowledge and data from our Departments of Health and Education with the expertise of our local school districts to make the best decisions for our students across the state,” Walz said in a press release Thursday.

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President Donald Trump has been pressuring governors to reopen all public schools for in-person learning this fall. Yet, according to a database created by Education Week, as of July 29, 11 of the 15 largest school districts in the nation have announced that their back-to-school plan only includes a remote learning option (with exceptions for certain populations).

Speaking as a former public teacher and a parent of a student in the St. Paul Public Schools district, Walz pledged his support for local control: “I trust local officials — with the guidance and the help that we’re going to give them — to make the right decision. And if they deem that it’s the right place for them to be back in that building, that’s where our kids will be.”

As districts finish adjusting their back-to-school plans these next few weeks, however, parents, students and educators may be left sitting in a place of uncertainty — or frustration as they start comparing what their schools are doing against the re-opening plans of neighboring schools. For now, here are a few baseline criteria shaping those plans, statewide:

1. In-person learning allowed, with safety precautions

In close consultation with state and local public health and education officials, school administrators will continually monitor COVID-19 infection rates in their communities, adjusting their school model as needed.

Offering a starting point for decisions about which model to choose, the state Department of Health has published a tiered chart. Using biweekly county-level data, it suggests that in-person learning for all students occur only when there are fewer than 10 cases per 10,000 residents.

A biweekly count of more than 10 cases triggers a scaled-back in-person approach, per state guidance released Thursday — beginning with a shift to in-person learning for elementary students with hybrid learning for secondary students.

Looking at current statewide COVID-19 data, Deputy Education Commissioner Heather Mueller reports that approximately 181 districts could fully return to an in-person model. Another 230 could, advisably, start with a hybrid model that keeps elementary students in person and has secondary students follow a hybrid model.

State officials stressed at Thursday’s press conference, however, that these thresholds are merely a starting point. They will not actually dictate which model a district actually chooses to implement. Also, these thresholds set a baseline expectation. Districts and charters may choose to be more restrictive in their learning model.

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Underscoring the need to allow for more nuanced in-school model planning, informed by local infection rates, Walz talked about recent outbreaks in factories in rural communities. Those experiences suggest that an outbreak could be contained without necessarily having to shift an entire district to distance learning.

The public health guidance for varying degrees of in-person learning includes considerations around social distancing, reducing school building and school transportation capacity, and more.

2. Guaranteed access to full-time distance learning options

No matter which format each district and charter decides on for this fall, Walz is requiring they give families the option to choose distance learning for their students — whether that decision be grounded in health risks associated with that student or any other factors families are considering as they balance work and school responsibilities with health and safety concerns for their household. Families are not required to provide documentation of risks, the guidance states.

“This plan prioritizes safe teaching and learning environments for all our students and staff. And it gives our families the option to choose an equitable distance learning experience, if that is what works best for them,” said Education Commissioner Mary Cathrine Ricker.

Under the governor’s latest guidance, teachers and school staff are not guaranteed this same option. Walz does, however, direct districts and charters to allow teachers and other school employees to work remotely to the extent possible.

3. Responding to an uptick in cases

Any increase in cases could prompt a district to adjust its learning model. But state officials say the decision to implement a more restrictive school model becomes most pressing if the 14-day infection count exceeds 50 cases per 10,000 county residents.

“Above 50 — there’s pretty good national consensus — that would indicate a significant enough level of community transmission that the recommendation would be distance learning for all students,” state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm  said Thursday.

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Looking at current public health data, Mueller said that nine districts currently fall into that category.

District leaders will be working closely with regional support teams — composed of local health officials, state health and education staff, and regional service cooperative staff — to execute contact tracing.

One saliva-based testing kit will be provided to every educator in Minnesota, and more widespread testing will be made available to students and educators, at no cost, on a case-by-case basis, Mueller said.

4. Not just guidance — face masks and funding, too

All students, staff and others present in school buildings and school transportation will be required to wear face coverings, to help prevent the spread of the virus.

To help meet this criteria, the state will be providing every K-12 student — as well as every school staff member — will one cloth face covering. Every school will also receive three disposable face masks per student (to ensure they aren’t turned away when they forget or lose their mask); and clear face masks — to allow for lip reading and greater levels of expression that greatly impact students who are deaf or hard or hearing, or who are at the elementary level — for all licensed teachers and for 50 percent of non-licensed staff.

These face coverings are one piece of the new $250 million investment in schools that Walz announced today. That pool of funding will also go toward deploying a comprehensive COVID testing plan for educators and staff members. It’ll also be allocated to help cover operational costs like cleaning supplies, transportation and technology needs that districts have heading into the school year. In addition, it’s  earmarked for things like translation services, mental health supports, tutors and professional development.