Something unusual happened when Anoka-Hennepin Superintendant David Law didn't cancel school as subzero cold blasted into the state earlier this month: His phone didn't ring.
In a year without a pandemic, Law would have fielded around 100 calls from angry parents worried about students out in the extreme temperatures. This year, he fielded zero calls even though elementary-age students are back in the classroom five days a week in the large north-suburban district and many older students part-time with the hybrid approach. "That I didn't close and nobody called, that's a great indication of where people are that they want their kids in school," Law said.
Nearly a year after COVID-19's arrival upended education and families along with it, the urgency in getting kids back in the classroom full-time is felt broadly across the state. Thankfully, normality or something close to it is at hand as Gov. Tim Walz has made timely, appropriate changes to the state's "Safe Learning Plan." The updates provide districts increased flexibility to safely resume traditional instruction.
One such modification "delinked" elementary school instruction decisions from COVID community health data. This allowed elementary schools to shift back to in-person instruction, beginning in January for their youngest students, even if local disease metrics wouldn't have allowed them to do so under the original state plan. Additional flexibility for older students was announced earlier this month. Starting Feb. 22, middle and high schools were able to start hybrid or in-person learning if they were able to implement necessary mitigation strategies.
Parents weary of distance learning supervisory duties may understandably feel that the changes did not come fast enough. Walz's critics contend the same, though it's important to note that many students are already back in the classroom at least part-time. According to a Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) spokeswoman, "88% of districts or charter schools are offering their students some form of in-person learning while only 12% of districts or charter schools are only offering distance learning."
The deliberative pace on school decisions was warranted. This is a new virus, one that medical experts have scrambled to understand. One of the clear lessons learned over the past year is the high risk presented by close, sustained indoor contact. While school-aged kids appear far less susceptible to severe COVID, the caution has been necessary to protect them, their families, teachers, bus drivers and other school support staff.
Scientists prioritized school safety, but studies take time. A Jan. 26 medical journal article concluded that accumulating research is "reassuring" and that there's "little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission'' when mitigation measures are followed.
The path back to normal for students and educators is going to require more patience. The virus has yet to be vanquished, and while vaccine supplies are increasing, most Minnesotans haven't gotten the shot. Walz's push to vaccinate educators and to provide testing in schools will help the schools stay open. Over 900,000 educators and child care workers, or about 38% of the workforce, have reported that they've been vaccinated, but MDE believes the number is higher, a spokeswoman said.
At an Anoka-Hennepin school board meeting last Monday, Law outlined a sensible plan to return students to classrooms and keep them there. It's a complex undertaking. Mitigation measures in certain areas, such as busing and lunchrooms, will be a challenge. Finding substitute teachers is going to be more difficult as more schools resume in-person instruction.
Families who still want distance learning must also be accommodated. The array of classes offered for high school students, as well as the licensing requirements for more specialized classes, mean a staffing solution isn't as simple as having a limited group of teachers dedicated to online learning. Prep time for teachers doing both types of instruction must be built in.
Middle and high school students will transition back to four days a week in the classroom the week of March 22. As Law explained to the school board: "It's little bit more complex than just inviting people back into the building."