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What back-to-school COVID precautions look like in Minnesota’s largest school districts

Tuesday night, board members of St. Paul Public Schools unanimously passed a mask mandate. Here’s a look at what Minneapolis, Anoka-Hennepin and Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan districts are doing as well.

photo of sign in school saying masks are required
A number of Minnesota school districts are requiring masks for students and staff in the fall.
REUTERS/Emily Elconin

Tuesday night, board members of St. Paul Public Schools unanimously passed a mask mandate that would require all staff, students and visitors over the age of 2 to wear masks on school grounds, with some qualifying exemptions.

Before the board voted to approve the mask mandate, treasurer John Broderick proposed a discussion to require that all staff to be vaccinated in a sign of schools taking on continuously evolving strategies as the school year approaches.

“I think the sooner that we let the public know that we are considering this, the better off we will be because we will find out whether indeed we will be able to do this and just exactly how we can do it in a manner that is legally and practically manageable,” he said. Other members of the board insisted the community be engaged before starting talks on a vaccination mandate.

The district’s move to require masks follows in the steps of other school districts, including Minneapolis Public Schools and Rochester Public Schools, and comes weeks after the Minnesota Department of Health announced that community transmission of the coronavirus is now high in 62 counties in the state, with 99 percent of cases among individuals who are not fully vaccinated.

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On Tuesday, the Minnesota Department of Health also announced updated testing options in schools, including no-fee COVID testing, and a new recommendation for unvaccinated staff and students to be tested weekly. In July, MDH released guidelines for the fall that included a recommendation for all students, staff and visitors to wear masks in schools. 

And while most districts are recommending masks, each school is looking at different mitigation strategies to rising COVID cases.

To understand how some schools are addressing a rapidly evolving situation, MinnPost asked leaders of three of Minnesota’s largest school districts about their strategy to ensure student safety. 

Anoka-Hennepin School District 11

David Law is the superintendent of Anoka-Hennepin Schools, the largest school district in Minnesota with approximately 40,000 students. 

Have you passed any resolutions or guidelines yet? 

We shared the CDC and MDH guidance the minute that we got it in mid-July to let our parents know: Here’s the guidance we strongly recommend to anyone, whether or not you’re vaccinated: Wear a mask in our school system, and this is how we will be returning. We have been lockstep with the CDC and the Department of Health since the beginning.

We are doing exactly what the CDC says. We’re recommending anyone, whether or not they’re vaccinated, wear a mask.

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Will you be monitoring the number of positive cases? 

Absolutely. We’ll be monitoring every school. We connect with Anoka County and Hennepin County on the case counts. Specifically, we’re targeting that under-11 population just to make sure that we’re watching the county spread at that level. And we’ll be monitoring all of our elementary sites where kids don’t have the ability to get vaccinated, to monitor case counts, just like we have throughout the last year. 

The county also tells us anytime they test someone and if that student tests positive. So we are keeping track of the number of positive cases for both staff and students in our system. And we’ll do that every week. 

If there is an outbreak in the school, is there a plan in place?

Last year we didn’t have to close a single school because of a breakout when the numbers were significantly higher. So I’m just looking at the last 365 days. We were prepared to and we monitored it. But our spread within the student population was relatively low then and at that point the community-wide spread was much, much higher. But we are still going to monitor it at the county level and at the school level. 

Will the school be conducting any type of systemic testing or tracking symptoms? 

We will continue to share the symptoms to watch. Our nurse’s office will be monitoring symptoms for kids that are showing symptoms that are extreme and we’ll be working with those parents to encourage a COVID test. 

Are there any physical distancing guidelines that the district is enforcing? 

We keep our elementary kids in pods for the most part, because they travel throughout the day. So that really allows us to monitor kids. They stay with their classmates. Our elementary classrooms probably have the most space. Our youngest learners have the smallest class size, so they have the ability to be 3 feet apart throughout the day. So we’re keeping all of the safety protocols in place. 

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Are there schools with onsite vaccinations?

We don’t have any on-site vaccination clinics right now just because we don’t have that demand. You can walk into just about any store, whether it be a Walmart or a Walgreens or a CVS, and get vaccinations on the spot. So I think Anoka County doesn’t feel the need to do an onsite vaccination clinic because they’re so readily available. I suppose when [vaccinations are approved] for our younger students, we probably have to look at how the county was to respond to that

What other options are there for parents who are still worried for the safety of their students?

We have a K-12 school that’s virtual and we created it and advertised it last February. We’ve been continuing to advertise it and we’ll be reaching out one more time to everyone who’s under the age of 12 before the start of the school year and offering up an option to go to virtual learning for at least the first trimester. Just for those of us who are concerned, we want to make sure that, you know, safety is our priority and we really want to make sure that we’re meeting parents’ needs for  concerns in safety. 

Is there anything else you think parents should know?

The reality is districts all over the state and all over the nation are making different decisions for a whole variety of reasons and I would just say people shouldn’t be surprised if different parts of the state or different parts of the country respond to this differently, because there are different levels of vaccination and different levels of spread. 

Minneapolis Public Schools

Rochelle Cox is the associate superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools, the third largest school district in the state. 

Can you tell me more about your guidelines?

Everything is so fluid right now. We’re just watching the numbers rise and really just trying to make sure we’re making the best decisions. Like last year, everything changed throughout the year and we’re prepared to look at the guidance, put something out and then keep reevaluating. 

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The Minnesota Department of Health defines an outbreak as five or more positive cases in a school. What is MPS doing to avoid that? 

Our goal is to have lots of mitigation strategies available in our schools for both our staff and students. So we have the mask mandate, we’ve already announced that, and we will work with social distancing to the greatest extent possible.

Schools are an essential service, and so we’re expecting that we’ll have more kids in school than we probably did in the spring and so social distancing will become challenging. 

We in Minneapolis are very committed to contact mapping. We have our partnership with the Minneapolis Health Department and we’re working really hard to make sure that we’re very responsive to both adults and any student cases. For our students, they go through our director of health services and our licensed school nurses use the Minnesota Department of Health Decision Tree. And so we will be using quarantine as another mitigation strategy. It was very successful last year.

Is there a protocol for students who test positive?

If we have a positive case in one of our schools, we then look at the people who were around that positive case for more than 15 minutes and within 6 feet. Now, the guidance has changed from the Minnesota Department of Health that if a form-fitting mask is worn by everyone in that contact circle, then there won’t be a need to quarantine. But if for some reason we have a student who, because of a medical or developmental condition, is unable to wear a mask, those will be the students that will need to quarantine. 

As far as our adults are concerned, we are encouraging our staff to get vaccinated. If they are vaccinated, they won’t have to be quarantined. But if we do have adults in our system who are considered a close contact, then they will quarantine. 

Are there any other precautions, such as physical distancing?

For students that are unable to  wear a mask, like some of our special education students, we have extra PPE [personal protective equipment] for them. We have face shields and we have gloves. 

Our nursing staff have a higher level of PPE. We also continue to look at our filtration system, making sure our HEPA facilities are up to date. We have a lot of sanitation stations in all of our schools, as well as our data centers. We’re moving forward. So as we take a look at all those pieces, that’s what leads to a higher level of protection for our students and staff. 

How many of your schools have on-site vaccination sites?

Many. Minneapolis public schools partnered with the city of Minneapolis, all through the pandemic, even when we were distance learning. We opened our buildings up because many of them were good sites for vaccination clinics. So we’ll continue that partnership. 

We will be targeting vaccination clinics at our high schools where we know that students will have access to a vaccine. So all of our comprehensive high schools have school-based clinics within them that are run by the city of Minneapolis, so that partnership will continue. And I know several of our principals have been in touch with our health services department to start to plan maybe vaccination clinics during open houses as we welcome students and families back to school. 

What virtual learning services are you offering students?

We will not be doing a hybrid system, although we are looking into options if we have large groups of students who as a class need to be quarantined, but I don’t think we’ll see that as much with the new guidelines. But if we did, then we would just move that teacher to distance learning for those 14 days, so those students continue to have instruction. 

We are offering and have expanded our online school. And so families who really have concerns, perhaps a health concern or for some other reason that online learning would work better for them, those students will be able to enroll into our online school. And that has been expanded to K-12; previously it was high school, 9-12.

We’re really trying to solidify the model and have that as an option. We know that this works for some of our students and is a preferred methodology for instruction or delivery model. So we now have a principal of the online school and we have an enrollment strategy. And so we’re really excited to look at how to offer that really as a service delivery model for our students. 

Are you keeping track of who is vaccinated and who is not?

We don’t require people to tell us due to medical privacy.

When can we expect the district to publish the new guidelines?

I know that our staff and our families are really anxious about getting the guidance out. We’re really working on kind of those last-minute details, you know, and really working with our regional support team to make sure we have a comprehensive look at what we’re going to have to do in this fall. So more to come. And that information, we’re hoping will be out sometime this week. 

Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan ISD 196

Deb Mehr is the health services coordinator at Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school district.

Will you be requiring masks?

At this point, we’re only requiring masks on the school buses. And we are also required to continue to report positive cases. And we are asking our families to continue to report positive cases to us. We are requiring positive cases to remain home and isolate for 10 days, anticipating that we will have students and families that are in situations where it’s difficult for them to stay home. We are recommending that families follow the Minnesota Department of Health decision tree and will try to in situations where they’re not able to layer other mitigation strategies to try to protect public health. 

What physical distancing guidelines are in place? 

Our plan continues to evolve almost on a daily basis, but our goal throughout this pandemic has been to provide as much consistent in-person learning opportunities for our students. And so we’ve been relying  heavily on the CDC and MDH and their protocols that are in place to help us create our operational plans for 2021-2022. 

As of right now, we are not mandating masks, but as I said, everything continues. It’s a conversation that we’ll continue to have. We do have our HEPA filters that are in all of our classrooms. We do have PPE that we will supply for students and staff to help keep them protected. 

Are you tracking the vaccination status of students, families and staff?

So we do know that our population that is carried through our health partners insurance is highly vaccinated. We do keep track of our eligible vaccinated population as well within our district. 

But we will continue to monitor that and encourage vaccinations. And in fact, we have onsite vaccination clinics at five of our schools.

Will schools be conducting COVID testing or monitoring  symptoms?

We are awaiting guidance from the Department of Health on that. We do have several hundred of the staff testing kits still available, but we haven’t been informed as to how we might be able to use them. We are hoping we can use them for students and other community members that are concerned about their status. But we will see what the Department of Health director writes. 

Is there a plan in place in case any one school has a large number of outbreaks? 

We’ve talked about that some and we’re hoping to continue in-person learning, and if that means layering other mitigation strategies, such as requiring masks for a period of time, we would do that and try to really focus on supporting the students that we do have in person to prevent further spread. 

We don’t have a parameter in place at this point such as shutting down a classroom or shutting down a school. We have not done that. But we’ll continue to evaluate situations as they evolve.

For students interested in online learning, what options are there? 

So we switched up how we are doing our online learning this year. Our digital academy, which is what was in place last year, was in response to the pandemic. We saw that there was a need and an opportunity to provide more of a full-time online learning option, which is something that schools in Minnesota have done for a really long time. And we’ve never really had an online school. So we took this opportunity to create 196 online, which is our full-time virtual school. 

We still provide online learning for those families where the students are either in isolation or quarantine. Absolutely.  

Are there any specific precautions you can be seeking for students under 12? 

For right now, we are strongly recommending that everyone ages 2 and up, regardless of vaccination status, are remaining masked indoors. That could change from a recommendation to a requirement before the beginning of school. It’s something that we’re looking at and something that we’re talking about as the situation continues to evolve, daily.

Our staff is going to continue to educate our students, especially our younger ones, about proper hand hygiene, hand washing, using sanitation, coughing into your shoulder instead of your hands, and just kind of being good proprietors of these health and safety protocols that are in place.