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The number of schools in Minnesota with confirmed COVID-19 cases has tripled twice in the last two weeks. What’s going on?

For one thing, students are back in classrooms. For another, the delta variant is far more contagious than the original strain of coronavirus Minnesota saw last fall.

Teenagers receiving the coronavirus disease vaccine
REUTERS/Hannah Beier
Teenagers have the lowest vaccination rates of any vaccine-eligible age group in Minnesota.

The number of COVID-19 cases in schools is rapidly increasing as many Minnesota school kids finish their first month of classes.

On Thursday, new data on COVID-19 in schools showed 94 pre-kindergarten through high school campuses with confirmed cases and exposures, more than tripling of the 26 facilities on the list last Thursday. (The Minnesota Department of Health adds schools to this list after confirming at least five cases of COVID-19 among students or staff where the people identified had been in the school building during a two-week reporting period.)

In recent weeks, confirmed COVID-19 cases are up more among school-age children than among any other age group in the state, and at least one school — Edison High School in Minneapolis — has moved classes online after a rash of cases and potential exposures.

“What we’re seeing in terms of the number of cases — if we compare it to the same time last year, we are well above a doubling and tripling of what we were seeing a year ago at this time,” Minnesota Department of Health Department Infectious Disease Director Kris Ehresmann said of COVID-19 cases in schools.

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Several things set this school year apart from last: More schools are operating in-person; the more-infectious delta variant spreads more rapidly; and the state Department of Health no longer has the authority to require schools to use mitigation measures, creating a patchwork of masking and other mitigation policies across districts.

Kris Ehresmann
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Director Kris Ehresmann
While many Minnesotans hoped this school year would look more normal than the last one, data from the first few weeks of school aren’t encouraging.

Cases up

Schools on the state’s list of schools with cases and exposures are located across the state. The counties with the most schools on the list are Hennepin, with 22 (also the state’s most populous county), Carver, with eight, and Dakota, Olmsted and Scott, with six listed schools each.

On the list are 33 elementary schools, 28 high schools, 21 middle schools and 12 mixed-level schools.

Minnesota schools with confirmed COVID-19 cases as of September 23, 2021
Source: Minnesota Department of Health

There is no consistent pattern among the schools on the list in terms of masking policies — some require masks for all students and staff, others do not. It’s also important to consider that the students or staff members may have been infected outside of school.

The Minnesota Department of Health says it doesn’t release case numbers for specific schools because they change quickly. But schools with cases range from having five to 20 cases, with an average of 7.

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Nearly a third of the schools on the list are high schools — schools in which students have been eligible for vaccination for months: in December, the Pfizer vaccine was initially authorized under emergency use for anyone age 16 and older. Its eligibility was expanded to 12 and up in May.

Yet teenagers have the lowest vaccination rates of any vaccine-eligible age group in Minnesota: 47 percent of 12 to 15-year-olds and 55 percent of 16 and 17-year-olds are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. On the whole, 68.3 percent of vaccine-eligible Minnesotans — those age 12 and older — are vaccinated.

Between the week of September 6 and the week of September 13, cases in school-aged kids rose faster than any other age group. Among 5 to 9 year-olds, they rose 58 percent. Between 10 and 14; 84 percent, and between 15 and 19 years old; 48 percent.

Increase in COVID-19 cases for children since school started
Source: Minnesota Department of Health

New year, new strain

For a couple reasons, higher case numbers in schools this year compared to last year are not surprising.

Not all students went back to school in-person in the first place in the fall of 2020, whereas this year most schools are back to in-person learning. When students who did go back in-person re-entered classrooms last fall, the strain of virus circulating was the alpha strain, which on average is less infectious than the currently dominant delta strain.

Ehresmann did the math to illustrate how much faster delta could spread in schools than the original strain of the virus: three people with the original strain would infect an average of three people each, or nine more people, who would infect three more people each, totaling 27 people, and so on. With delta, three people infect an average of seven people each, meaning after three generations of infections the total would be 147.

“That’s quite a few magnitudes greater in terms of what just a few cases can do with delta, as compared to what was happening with the original strain,” Ehresmann said. “We are concerned at this high, high level of spread that we’re seeing so early in the school year.”

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Mitigation strategies

A week after the first positive case of COVID-19 was detected in Minnesota, Gov. Tim Walz declared a peacetime emergency, giving the governor’s office executive powers over local jurisdictions including school districts — allowing for the closure of schools and the implementation of distance learning. That peacetime emergency ended this summer as part of a deal with the Legislature.

Gov. Tim Walz
REUTERS/Eric Miller
Gov. Tim Walz
Containment strategies in schools are now left to the discretion of the districts, including mask and vaccine mandates. In a statement provided to MinnPost, the Minnesota Department of Education said that while they do not have the authority to step in with mandates at this time, they have continued to offer schools guidance and funding for COVID testing.

“We have communicated that schools should implement policies such as universal masking, social distancing, contact tracing, quarantining and other practices outlined in the MDH guidance in order to protect the health and safety of students, staff and families.”

“We’re really encouraging layered mitigation,” Ehresmann said. “There’s still a chance that you could have transmission in a setting with masks and layered mitigation, but it is much, much less.”

Among other guidelines, MDH and the CDC recommend universal masking at current high levels of transmission. They also recommend keeping at least three feet space between students in classrooms when feasible, screening tests to promote early detection of COVID-19 and that students and staff experiencing symptoms of illness stay home.

Most importantly, MDH and the Centers for Disease Control strongly recommend vaccination for students age 12 and up.

“The benefit of vaccines is fully dependent on the proportion of the community that takes advantage of it,” Ehresmann said. “If we don’t see [high vaccination levels], then yes, we could continue to see more transmission.”

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Decisions for school leaders

The absence of statewide orders has put local school officials in charge of making public health policy — something some school leaders would prefer not to do.

“Many of us, myself included, would agree we’d love to have health officials making  decisions for us rather than us making them in our school settings. We’re educators, not public health officials,” said Christine Tucci Osorio, superintendent of the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale school district, which has one school, North Senior High, on MDH’s list.

Osorio said that the pandemic has increased communication across districts between school officials and one thing has become clear: misinformation is one of the greatest barriers for school districts.

“We’re very much battling misinformation out there in the community and trying to make sure people hear accurate information based on what the data is showing us and what health officials are telling us is the way to go,” Osorio said, whose district has a mask mandate.

In Owatonna, where four schools have made MDH’s list, there is no comprehensive mask mandate in place. Superintendent Jeff Elstad said the school district is utilizing local data to make containment decisions: if five percent or more of students or staff at one of the district’s schools tests positive for COVID-19, masking would then be required for two weeks and if the number of cases persisted or increased, a mask requirement would then be extended.

What we have been tasked to do is utilize our local school data to make the best decisions possible for our school district and recognize that there certainly is emotion on both sides of the issue of masking,” Elstad said.

Across the state, masking mandates has certainly elicited divided opinions resulting in fraught school board meetings, even in the Twin Cities. During a public comment section at St. Paul Public school board meeting regarding a board vote on implementing a mask mandate, some parents argued that the mandate would strip parents of any autonomy in their child’s education.

In Minneapolis Public Schools, where staff are now required to follow a vaccine mandate or be tested weekly, district spokeswoman Julie Schultz Brown said that ultimately the district hopes to balance the need to keep students safe while ensuring that they are learning.

“None of us has a crystal ball. We examine a number of mitigating factors when addressing COVID-19 challenges,” Brown said. Currently 5 Minneapolis Public Schools are on MDH’s list and according to data on the district’s website, and 30 schools in the district have at least one positive case. And while the district is not tracking the vaccination status of students except for contact tracing, Brown said schools are continuing to encourage vaccination.

“Every situation and every school is different based on these factors. One size does not fit all. What is the same in each case is our commitment to maximizing in-person instruction with a licensed teacher.”