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Senate Republicans — and four DFLers — vote to strip Walz of power over schools amid frustration over emergency powers

Even after Walz announced a relaxation of limits on in-person learning for middle and high schools in Minnesota, the state Senate moved to make sure he could never again have the ability to close classrooms in the first place.

Gov. Tim Walz visiting students at Wyoming Elementary School on Sept. 8, 2020.
Gov. Tim Walz visiting students at Wyoming Elementary School on Sept. 8, 2020.
Office of Governor Tim Walz & Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan

Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday paved the way for middle and high school students to return to classrooms across Minnesota by relaxing limits on in-person learning, a decision he made based on data saying schools can be relatively safe for kids and teachers under the right conditions. 

GOP lawmakers who control the Minnesota Senate have long argued for an end to remote learning, but they weren’t satisfied with the governor’s move. On Thursday, those Republicans argued Walz should never have had the ability to keep classrooms closed in the first place, and approved a bill that would put that idea into practice — removing the governor’s authority under his peacetime emergency powers to decide whether schools should be open.

Students “should not have lost part of two school years, that’s just totally unacceptable,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, in a news conference Thursday. “This should never happen again. It shouldn’t have happened.”

The measure is unlikely to become law, since it would need approval from the Democratic-led House and Walz himself. But the GOP-led bill is a key part of legislative Republicans’ vision for how schools should ultimately be run during the pandemic: by local districts.

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And while a majority of DFLers want Walz to keep his authority, not all do. Illustrating perhaps a weariness with the governor’s ongoing emergency powers, at least when it comes to schools, four Democrats and two independent lawmakers voted with the GOP on Thursday.

Schools open and close — with Walz’s permission

Early on in the pandemic, Walz was hesitant to close schools even as other states did so. But as cases of COVID-19 spiked, heightening fears of spread among kids and teachers, the governor closed schools for eight days in March and later extended remote classes for the rest of the 2020 school year.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
Last fall, the governor set new guidelines that gave schools three options: remote learning, in-person classes, or a hybrid system. Districts could choose which to implement, but state guidelines also said they should switch to remote classes if county-level data showed severe enough COVID-19 outbreaks in the area. Schools also had to phase in grades when moving to in-person or hybrid classes. The Walz administration has the final say and can shift a school into distance learning if they believe another teaching model isn’t safe.

In December, as the state was weeks into heightened restrictions on public life amid a spike in cases, Walz announced all elementary schools could return to in-person classes on Jan. 18. Since then, cases have dwindled, vaccinations have ramped up, and the CDC has released new guidance saying all schools can offer in-person or hybrid classes if they follow strict mitigation strategies for disease spread. 

Studies on COVID-19 in schools appear to indicate schools can operate with relative safety under certain conditions. Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is President Joe Biden’s top medical adviser, said this week it’s “non-workable” for every teacher to be vaccinated before schools open classrooms. Walz said earlier this week that roughly 25 percent of teachers in the state have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Many teachers remain concerned about safety in their specific schools, and the state teachers union has said some schools don’t have the resources to provide needed mitigation measures. But on Wednesday, Walz said any middle or high school can choose to operate a hybrid model or in-person classes starting Monday, and the governor said he expects school districts to offer some form of in-person education by March 8. As of last Friday, about 65 percent of school districts and charter schools had in-person learning or hybrid education for middle and high school students. That doesn’t include districts that already planned to open their doors but hadn’t yet.

State Sen. Carla Nelson
State Sen. Carla Nelson
The Republican bill, sponsored by Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, would strip Walz’s ability to make those decisions during a peacetime emergency. Under the measure, Senate File 2, the choice for whether to open or not would fall entirely to school officials. Nelson stressed districts can and should be in close contact with health officials who can offer guidance and sound information, just as they do now. But she said it shouldn’t be up to the governor to make sweeping decisions on whether to open or close a school district.

“Where can that decision best be made?” Nelson said Thursday. “I believe that is the local school districts who know their students the best, they know the conditions on the ground, they know the mitigation efforts.” 

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At a GOP press conference, Thaddeus Helmers, school board chair for the Frazee-Vergas district in northwest Minnesota, said the state didn’t turn away his district’s plans for in-person learning, but said the state shouldn’t have the option of overruling local leaders. “As a school board representative, it troubles me when I have no say in the outcome of my district,” Helmers said. (Frazee-Vergas has in-person learning for pre-K through 6th grade but a hybrid model for 7th-12th graders, according to MDE.)

Democrats, school groups and teachers unions oppose

On the Senate floor, Democrats painted the measure as a political attack on Walz and just another effort to remove authority granted by the Legislature that DFLers say is key to a quick public health response during an ongoing crisis.

State Sen. Chuck Wiger
State Sen. Chuck Wiger
Sen. Chuck Wiger of Maplewood, who is the top Democrat on the Senate’s Education Finance and Policy Committee, said DFLers want kids back in school safely. But he said school districts largely don’t support Nelson’s bill and want the Legislature to focus on giving more money and other help for schools to make classrooms safer. 

Wiger said it wouldn’t be responsible to revoke any governor’s authority to act during an emergency, and he said the current system heavily involves health experts to keep people safe.“We have a variety of (learning) models that are in place in Minnesota based on local leads,” Wiger said. “There are guard rails, there’s guidance to assist districts.”

Before Walz’s announcement this week, Deb Henton, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, testified in a Senate hearing earlier in February against SF 2 on behalf of her organization, the Minnesota School Boards Association and the Association of Metropolitan School Districts. She said the governor’s Safe Learning Plan did give options for “some measures of local control” and said the groups let the state Department of Education know when they felt like they weren’t consulted or when revisions were needed to state guidance.

But Henton said she believes state officials have access to privileged information during emergencies local administrators may not always have. “We envision many potential problems for having all 333 school districts and 160 charter schools implement their own strategies for how to deal with a situation like this pandemic should this bill move forward,” Henton said. “We do not believe it is necessary at this time.”

In an email Thursday, Kirk Schneidawind, executive director of the school boards association, said they believe in local control but see the bill as unnecessary.

The state teachers union, Education Minnesota, is also opposed. In a joint statement with SEIU Local 284 and Teamsters Local 320, who represent school workers, the groups asked Senate Republicans to put several of Walz’s executive orders into law aimed at protecting worker safety, such as requiring K-12 students wear masks in schools and on buses.

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Republicans say give schools control; and some in DFL agree

Nelson, the Republican Senator, was adamant that nothing in her legislation would prevent local districts from working with state officials and health experts as they have throughout the pandemic.

Though it’s aimed at getting more children into classrooms, it also wouldn’t mandate that either. She said the decision would still be up to districts, who can decide what type of learning works best for them. 

MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Superintendent Ed Graff
Some districts have not committed to a return to the classroom thus far. Minneapolis students in pre-K through 3rd grade are back in classrooms, and the district plans to bring 4th and 5th graders back on Monday. Children in grades 6-12 remain in distance learning, however. And though Superintendent Ed Graff said in a district-wide email officials are working on plans to bring secondary students back, perhaps starting with tutoring help “as soon as March,” they haven’t committed to a time frame for doing so.

Before the governor’s announcement, St. Paul schools were planning to bring middle and high school kids back starting Monday at some buildings for roughly one half-day of in-person learning a week to be used for extra tutoring and help, said spokesman Kevin Burns. About 10,000 St. Paul students in Pre-K through grade 5 have transitioned back to full time in-person learning during February.

Burns said the district is in “near-constant” negotiations with the local teachers union to reach an agreement for a broader return to in-person learning for older students. He declined to say if the district could return if the groups don’t seal an agreement, but he said the district is “committed to negotiations.”

Nelson said there are ways to entice districts to bring back in-person learning, such as rewarding schools with government aid “who did open up safely and took those mitigation efforts that do cost money to make that happen.”

On the Senate floor, Nelson acknowledged Walz had already taken steps to open schools. But she said her bill was still necessary to “prevent this disaster from happening again.”

“We must prevent a governor from using emergency powers for nearly a year to keep our kids out of school at a time when the science has shown that kids are not superspreaders,” Nelson said.

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At least some DFLers agreed. The 40-27 vote on Nelson’s did not fall along party lines. Four Democrats voted with the GOP: Sens. John Hoffman of Champlin, Jerry Newton of Coon Rapids, Aric Putnam of St. Cloud and Kent Eken of Twin Valley. Also voting for Nelson’s bill were independent Sens. Tom Bakk and David Tomassoni.

Some Democrats, particularly from outside Minneapolis and St. Paul, have soured on the governor’s continued use of emergency authority or at least some of executive orders and actions. None of the DFLers who voted for Nelson’s bill spoke on the Senate floor on Thursday,