Walz: Schools given flexibility in reopening plans, dependent on COVID-19 spread
Minnesota school districts will have discretion on how to reopen this fall, depending on the spread of COVID-19 in their communities and other factors.
Gov. Tim Walz unveiled a reopening plan Thursday that includes an equation for districts to use to decide whether to reopen with in-person class, distance learning or a hybrid option dependent on the viral activity in the surrounding county and the district's ability to meet mitigation requirements.
The announcement comes a month after state health and education officials asked districts to prepare for the three scenarios — and be prepared to switch between the options based on local spread of the novel coronavirus.
“With this approach, we are pairing the knowledge and data from our departments of health and education with the expertise of our local school districts to make the best decisions for our students across the state," Walz said.
Experts from the health and education departments will partner with school districts and charter schools to help determine which learning model they should use at the beginning of the year. School districts will announce separately which learning models they will be using.
The Safe Learning Plan's equation
Walz's "Safe Learning Plan" uses an equation for the district to find the 14-day case rate per 10,000 people in the county.
To be able to fully reopen with in-person learning, a county needs to have fewer than nine cases per 10,000 residents in a 14-day period.
Schools in counties with higher case counts per 10,000 residents could reopen in various scenarios, including in-person learning for elementary students and hybrid learning for secondary students; hybrid learning for all students; or hybrid learning for elementary and distance for secondary.
If counties have more than 50 cases per 10,000 residents, schools are expected to switch to distance learning.
Jan Malcolm, health commissioner, emphasized the equation was a starting point — not the sole determinant for which option each district will use.
"This is a recommendation. ... Here's where you should start this conversation," she said.
The state released weekly 14-day case rates going back to June 13. The most recent two-week period posted by the state, from July 5-18, showed Stearns, Benton and Sherburne counties with rates between 10 and 20, which places them in the policy recommendation of in-person learning for elementary students and hybrid education for secondary students.
The hybrid model mandates a 50% capacity of school facilities with social distancing of 6 feet at all times. Transportation also must be at 50% capacity in the hybrid model.
Using rates as of Thursday, officials reported the data would likely allow:
- 181 districts to start with in-person learning for all students
- 230 districts to start with in-person learning for elementary students and hybrid learning for secondary students
- 107 districts to start with hybrid learning for all students
- Seven districts to start with hybrid learning for elementary students and distance learning for secondary students
- Nine districts to start with distance learning for all students
But again, Walz emphasized the data is only a point in time and is only a starting point. Other factors districts will need to take into account include the age and design of buildings.
"Not all schools look the same. Not all parts of our state look the same," Walz said.
Local decisions to come in next few weeks
St. Cloud school district administrators plan to present a back-to-school plan at the Aug. 8 school board meeting.
The first day of school is Tuesday, Sept. 8 for sixth-graders, ninth-graders and new-to-school students at the secondary level; the first day of school for all St. Cloud district students is Wednesday, Sept. 9.
When switching between learning models, Walz's plans prioritizes keeping younger children in the classroom "understanding that transmission is less likely for younger children and that in-person learning is particularly critical at their developmental stage," states a release from Walz.
School districts must also give families the option to choose distance learning for their student regardless of which learning model the district has implemented.
“We know that families, teachers and students are juggling competing concerns as we approach ‘back to school’ this fall,” stated Lt. Governor Flanagan in a release. “While some are eager to be back in the classroom, others have very real concerns about health and safety.
"That’s why the Safe Learning Plan sets the guidelines for how safely a school can reopen, based on regional data and the expertise of public health leaders and local administrators," she continued, "while still allowing families, teachers, and staff to make the decision to stay home.”
Walz also announced Thursday the state will invest more than $430 million in federal funding to help schools, educators, students and families. Walz provided $180 million through the summer to improve distance learning and fund summer learning programs.
The state will dedicate $250 million for the upcoming school year that will:
- Provide face coverings for every student, educator and staff member
- Deploy a comprehensive COVID testing plan for educators and staff members
- Help cover operational costs such as cleaning supplies, transportation, technology needs and Wi-Fi access
- Boost student, family, and educator support, like digital navigation training, tutors, translation services, mental health support and professional development
The state is also requiring districts to allow teachers and school employees to work remotely to the extent possible. For in-person learning, masks will be required for both teachers and students.
What other districts, parents and teachers are saying
Administrators for Minneapolis Public Schools, one of the largest districts in the state, announced Tuesday plans to start the school year Sept. 8 with distance learning.
The Associated Press reported Minneapolis' plan requires remote learning as the primary method of instruction, though buildings would remain open for tutoring, technology and mental health support for students and families.
St. John's Preparatory School plans to reopen in-person Aug. 26. It will be the first local secondary school to begin the 2020-21 school year.
Michael Osterholm, executive director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, told the Star Tribune on Thursday the plan "allows for the flexibility that schools are going to need right now because conditions are going to continue to change between now and the time we hopefully get an effective vaccine."
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidelines with an emphasis on reopening schools this fall, citing children and adolescents account for fewer than 7% of COVID-19 cases and fewer than 0.1% of deaths.
The report also states children are not likely prime sources of transmission in the community and, if infected, are less likely to develop severe symptoms.
Education Minnesota released a survey last week gauging teacher preferences on how best to return to school this fall. It showed nearly 50% of respondents prefer distance learning, while about 30% prefer hybrid classes. Only about 17% prefer in-person instruction.
The survey is based on results from more than 20,000 respondents between July 16-20.
The results clash with a Minnesota Department of Education survey, conducted between June 15-July 6, with responses from more than 130,000 parents.
More than half of the parents surveyed reported having a "bad" or "very bad" experience with distance learning in the spring and nearly 65% of parents reported being comfortable sending children back to school this fall.
Of the respondents who said they were comfortable sending their children back to school this fall, 94% said they were comfortable sending their kids back full-time.
Support local journalism. Subscribe to sctimes.com today.