Gov. Tim Walz ratcheted up the state’s response to the novel coronavirus Sunday morning by ordering that all state schools — public and private — close to students no later than Wednesday and for at least eight school days.
But the order was not because he and his health officials think students are newly at risk. Instead, the closure is meant to give school staff time to make arrangements for what instruction will look like for the rest of the 2019-20 school year. Most likely, it will mean more distance learning for students. But it could also include delivering school materials and meals for those dependent on subsidized school lunch programs.
“A decision to close schools has a magnitude of consequences that will change life in Minnesota as we’ve seen it operate,” Walz said.
Added his Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker: “I am stressing to use this whole time to plan. We are not accomodating a couple snow days. We are planning for the potential of weeks of distance learning delivery.”
The closure order came at the same time that the state has identified 35 residents with the coronavirus, up 14 from the day before. The number does not purport to be a total count but only confirmed cases based on available testing. Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm expects the numbers to continue to grow.
The significant news Sunday is that for the first time the state has cases that appear to show community transmission of the virus: that is, the presence in people who have not themselves traveled to COVID-19 hotspots or been in close contact with people who have. There are three such cases now, in Ramsey, Hennepin and Dakota counties.
“Of the 35 cases we have seen, there are no major clusters anywhere,” she said. “The demographics are spread out. I’m happy to say that of the 35 cases, we’ve had very few cases that were severe enough for hospitalization.”
One person remains in the hospital and is critically ill but the other person who needed hospital care has been released.
The mitigation guidance announced last week and Sunday are meant to slow down the spread — what health officials call flattening out the curve of new cases over time — so that the health care system will not be overwhelmed.
“I know the last few days have ratcheted up our concerns about COVID-19 as we’ve seen dramatic actions being taken across the nation,” Malcolm said. “It’s natural that we should be questioning everything and seeking answers to what’s happening and why it’s happening. We are mindful of the things we don’t know about COVID-19, but we are very confident and very vigilant that we will continue to learn and learn quickly.”
Walz’s executive order requires schools to keep providing meals and to provide child care for the elementary-age children of health care workers and first responders. His education commissioner said that it could also include care for school employees with school-age children, though that would be a district-by-district decision.
The order came just two days after Walz said he wasn’t planning to order school closures — as governors in other states have done. While he said the advice from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control still does not recommend school closures because children are less susceptible to the virus and to severe complications from COVID-19. He said he was reluctant to do so until there were plans in place to deal with the repercussions to families and workers with children.
“While you might be solving one problem, you might be exacerbating another,” Walz said. But he said he now thinks some school closures are inevitable and wanted a more-orderly transition.
Districts can close immediately but cannot be open later than Wednesday. They are to use the time to plan for e-learning such as taking inventory of how many students have home access to computers and the internet, how lessons would be delivered and how testing could be done. While school employees are expected to keep working — and non-teachers should be kept on the payroll — those with medical conditions that make them more at risk should be allowed to stay home. The number of required teaching days will be reduced for all charter and district schools in the state, and the state will not require schools to make up instructional time lost during the closure period.
Steve Grove, the commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development, said the state has about 650,000 families with school-age children. Of those, 60,000 are households led by workers without paid leave. The state is watching federal legislation that could provide financial relief for those families in the case that wage-earners are kept home when their children are out of school. Walz is also seeking legislation that would allow those with paid leave to use it in this circumstance and for the state’s unemployment insurance fund to be tapped for benefits to those without paid leave.
“We are deeply concerned about this,” Walz said. “The decision on closing schools is going to have a disproportionate effect on those 60,000-plus families who are very much on the edge anyway.”
Grove said he also is looking at ways to help small businesses that will be impacted by the economic disruptions due to the pandemic. That could include no-interest loans through the U.S. Small Business Administration and state aid to struggling businesses. “We know these challenges will disproportionately affect employers and employees who are smaller and face greater challenges when it comes to paid leave,” Grove said.
Walz said he is not ready to close other public spaces such as restaurants and bars, though he said other businesses like theaters and concert venues have already decided to close.
“A lot of this is new territory and I must be candid, that might become an option,” Walz said. But Malcolm said that for the time being, “we want them to stay open as long as possible,” but that the same advice about social distancing and sanitation should be practiced.
“We want to encourage interaction where it is safe,” Malcolm said. “We know that it’s an important part of people’s well being, to interact with each other. We’re trying to protect the ability to do that but in safer ways.”
Leaders of the four legislative caucuses supported the Walz decision. It also was endorsed by the head of Education Minnesota, the state’s teachers union.
“No matter where we live or what we look like, we all want our kids to keep learning and growing through this difficult time,” said union president Denise Specht.