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What to know about Gov. Walz’s plan to get Minnesota middle and high school students back in the classroom

The change comes amid reduced spread of COVID-19 in Minnesota and a growing number of teachers get vaccinated.

Gov. Tim Walz and other governors are calling for Congress to adopt another COVID-19 relief bill.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Gov. Tim Walz: “We aren’t out of the woods, but our relentless progress with vaccines and Minnesotans’ vigilance has put us closer than ever to the end of this pandemic.”
Gov. Tim Walz announced Wednesday that all students in middle school and high school can return to classrooms starting Monday, a decision that comes as the pandemic has eased in Minnesota.

The governor said that he expects all schools to offer students “some form” of in-person education by March 8. Walz also outlined a set of safety protocols for schools to follow. “It’s time to get our students back in school and we can do that now safely,” Walz said in a televised speech Wednesday.

Walz had previously allowed elementary schools to open if they adhered to certain health and safety guidelines, but had kept middle and high schools under tougher rules limiting when they could hold in-person classes based in part on the severity of the pandemic in their area.

As cases, hospitalizations and deaths have dropped over the last two months in Minnesota, and vaccinations have increased, the debate over the pros and cons of opening schools has intensified. While teachers have raised concerns about getting sick, people who want kids back in classrooms note remote learning has exacerbated achievement gaps and is not considered to be as effective. The federal government said last week, and research shows, that bringing kids back into classrooms appears to be relatively safe.

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The governor, a former teacher assistant football coach, said the pandemic has changed for the better since he asked Minnesotans to “buckle down and have a goal-line stand” to stop escalating COVID-19 numbers late last year. “Well we’re on offense now, and it’s our time to take back the things that make life so wonderful for us.”

Here’s what you need to know about the governor’s latest announcement:

When can schools open?

Under Walz’s updated schools plan, every middle and high school has the option of returning to hybrid or in-person learning starting Monday, February 22. While it’s not a requirement, Walz says he expects every school to offer at least some form of in-person learning by March 8.

The Walz administration says families who aren’t comfortable sending kids to in-person or hybrid learning can still use a remote learning option. Heather Mueller, deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Education, said Wednesday some schools may quickly shift to holding in-person classes five days a week and others might do fewer. “You might see it looks a little bit different from community to community but the basic underlying premise is the same: that for every single student that would like to be in an in-person setting we are trying to provide every single strategy and mitigation approach necessary to be able to do that,” Mueller said.

The state also eliminated a requirement for phased transition to in-person classes for schools under past guidance. Mueller said a “rolling start,” where a school might bring back 9th and 10th graders for two weeks before opening classrooms to 11th and 12 graders, is no longer needed.

State data show most elementary schools are holding in-person classes or are operating in a hybrid learning model, while more middle and high schools are running remote classes. As of Friday, 27 percent of school districts and charter schools had in-person learning for middle and high school students while another 38 percent offered a hybrid learning model with some in-class time, according to data provided to MinnPost by the teachers union Education Minnesota. That data doesn’t include districts that have announced they plan to open their doors soon but haven’t done so yet.

Why is the state doing this now?

Walz said his decision was based on increased testing in schools as well as vaccination of teachers and declining COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. The governor said nearly 25 percent of teachers have been vaccinated, and the state plans to have 18,000 vaccine doses available for teachers next week, which the state says is an increase from past allocations.

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In total, more than 695,000 Minnesotans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, which is more than 12 percent of the state’s population. The state’s seven-day positive case average has declined for weeks and is at 3.7 percent, below a 5-percent threshold the state considers to be a concerning sign of high disease spread.

Walz said more than 96 percent of school districts have signed up to participate in a program in which the state ships testing supplies for free to schools every two weeks.

Minnesota has listed 71 schools with COVID-19 outbreaks as of Wednesday, which means the school reported five or more cases of COVID-19 in students or staff over a two-week period who were in the school while infectious. It doesn’t mean those people contracted COVID-19 at the school.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance last week for when schools should open based on the spread of COVID-19. But it also says “at any level of community transmission” all schools can offer in-person or hybrid classes through “strict adherence to mitigation strategies” such as mask usage.

“Evidence suggests that many K-12 schools that have strictly implemented mitigation strategies have been able to safely open for in-person instruction and remain open,” the CDC guidance says.

Dan Huff, an assistant commissioner at the Minnesota Department of Health, told reporters Wednesday that it’s easier to limit spread in schools than other places because of how “structured” and “well controlled” the setting is. He said they have found in elementary schools that more children than adults were at the building while infectious, and in high schools more students than adults were attending while infectious.

“What we have not found though is significant community spread as a result of schools or a significant threat to adults who are working in schools,” Huff said.

Mueller, the MDE deputy commissioner, said the state consulted with school boards, administrators, the teachers union, superintendents and others in deciding how to move forward.

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What precautions is the state taking?

When Walz said all elementary schools could open, he required they follow practices to limit spread of COVID-19, including a recommendation that staff wear face shields and masks and that schools offer frequent testing for staff. The governor said Wednesday middle and high schools will have to follow similar guidelines, including an updated requirement for physical distancing.

Students in those grades must keep six feet apart from each other during the school day whenever feasible, and at least three feet apart at all times. Those guidelines don’t apply, however, when there are low levels of community spread of COVID-19 in the county a school is in.

The state’s updated schools plan says if a school with in-person classes reports about 5 percent of staff and students have COVID-19 or symptoms of the disease, they’re “strongly encouraged to discuss” whether they should shift to more remote learning.

The Minnesota guidance says school officials must recommend students who are participating in hybrid or in-person classes and their families get tested for COVID-19 every two weeks.

Republicans call for decisions to be made by school leaders

Republicans in the Minnesota Legislature had already advocated for more schools to reopen and said the governor should ensure schools actually do bring back in-person learning as fast as possible. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said the GOP plans to approve a bill in the state Senate that would ban the governor from using his emergency powers to close schools and said the decision should be up to local school leaders. He also said teachers unions have been standing in the way of opening more schools.

“All the science says we can and should open schools for the academic and emotional health of our children,” Gazelka said in a statement. “Yet most kids are still receiving too much instruction by distance learning.”

In January, Education Minnesota — the state teachers union — had questioned whether reopening more elementary schools was safe and have since said vaccinating teachers is key to opening schools. Last week, following the CDC guidance, the union said many layers of COVID-19 mitigation should be in place to reopen schools, such as high-quality ventilation.

Republican Sen. Roger Chamberlain of Lino Lakes, who chairs the Senate’s Education Committee, said in a statement Walz’s announcement was an attempt “to get some good PR without upsetting the teachers’ union.”

“The governor seems to be the last person to arrive at the conclusion everyone else reached months ago: distance learning has been a disaster for kids, and they have got to be back in the classroom right now,” Chamberlain said.

What happens if schools refuse to open?

Walz told reporters Wednesday that he’ll “cross that bridge when we get there” if schools don’t offer some in-person learning by March 8. He said the state is trying to give districts the tools to open and hopes they’ll follow suit.

Some parents have been frustrated their schools haven’t offered in-person learning. Minneapolis schools, for instance, have only remote classes for high schools. Teachers unions in some parts of the state, including Minneapolis and St. Paul,  asked districts to push back reopening plans earlier this year over health and safety concerns. And Walz said he thinks it’s important to listen to organized labor when they raise such issues. But the governor said he doesn’t want to “push” districts and teachers to return to the class, but “partner with them.”

In a statement, Education Minnesota said it would encourage school districts that don’t already have in-person learning to plan to open their doors by March 8. Many of the remaining districts that are not open need more staff and money to help them meet safety standards outlined by the CDC, said union president Denise Specht. She said the latest weekly report from the state Education Department said there have been 13,515 infections tied to K-12 school staff and students.

“Regardless of today’s announcement, there will still be educators who need the vaccine before they can safely return to their buildings because of local conditions,” Specht said. “There will also be families that won’t be comfortable returning to in-person learning next month. Meeting the needs of everyone won’t be easy and the solutions will look different everywhere.”