Area school districts got what they were hoping for on July 30 – flexibility from the state on whether they can reopen in full this fall.
Minnesota state officials unveiled a plan to reopen schools this fall that gives districts some flexibility to toggle between in-person and online learning, but reserves the right for the state to step in if the coronavirus gets out of control.
Gov. Tim Walz acknowledged the importance of schools and the value of in-person learning, but said the state’s top priority is safety. Districts will work with the state Health and Education departments to determine whether to use in-person instruction, online learning or a hybrid model, and will have the ability to become more or less restrictive depending on the virus.
“When people say ‘open schools,’ that’s not a plan, that’s a slogan,” said Walz, a former public school teacher. “We all believe we need to get our students back there, but you are owed the best plan with the best resources ... and the best practices that are being deployed not only here but in other states and other countries around the world.”
State education officials will use data on virus cases in a county to help districts determine which model they should use. Those with fewer than 10 cases per 10,000 people — measured over a 14-day average — could teach in person. Those with 50 or more cases would have to use distance learning. Levels in between would be suited to hybrid models.
The news was welcomed both by Aitkin Superintendent Dan Stifter and McGregor Superinteindent Brad Johnson.
“I am glad he left it more up to the local districts but still provided guidelines that are easy to share with our communities. I was worried it would be a lot more vague at first,” Johnson said. “Now we can get to work and finalize our plans.
“Hopefully in another month, our COVID-19 numbers are still low and we can have the kids back in the school,” he added.
Added Stifter, “We have been given some guidance and allowed some local control in the decision-making process. We will analyze the available data and make the decision we feel is best for the Aitkin Public School District.”
Right now, Aitkin has a total of 27 positive cases since March. However, as of Friday, the number per 10,000 was sitting at 5.05. The county went up by one case over the weekend.
Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said the figures will be used as a starting point in the districts’ decision-making process, which should include plans to manage risk of infection, like masking policies, frequent cleaning, social distancing and limiting large gatherings.
“After the decision to open is made, that’s not the end of the conversation,” Malcolm said. “There will be ongoing evaluation and ongoing consultation about what’s happening with virus transmission and the schools’ ability to continue to build up these mitigation and best practices, and what’s going on in the community around some of the mitigation strategies that we know are so very important.”
The plan requires both public schools and charter schools to allow students and teachers to choose remote learning no matter what model the district chooses.
The state will also provide a cloth mask to every student, teacher and adult working at schools, a clear face shield to every teacher and three disposable masks per student to every school in the state.
Heather Mueller, deputy education commissioner, said support teams composed of state officials and local public health officials will help schools implement the plan and respond when a student or school employee tests positive for COVID-19. To ensure access to testing for schools at no cost, Mueller said every teacher will receive one saliva test for their classroom, school staff will get priority for testing as critical workers and universal testing may be considered for outbreak areas.
Republicans and some school officials had pressed Walz to leave reopening plans up to individual districts, arguing that local administrators know best how to protect students.
GOP Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said the plan should have come sooner, and that there will still more delay while districts finalize plans. He also said he was “concerned” that the state can still order schools back to distance learning.
The union said in a statement it welcomed the use of data and flexibility in the plan but cautioned that more steps are needed before safely reopening.
“Physically opening school buildings to our students will take a tremendous amount of work from everyone in the school community – school board members, administrators, educators and parents – before we can do it safely,” union president Denise Specht said. “We cannot be bullied by arbitrary start dates on the calendar or settle for ‘safe enough’ because that’s all an underfunded district can afford. In-person and hybrid learning shouldn’t start until our schools are ready.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.