Albert Lea Area Schools had 36 cases of COVID-19 and 290 students in quarantine just five days after classes started on Aug. 19, far outpacing infections at the start of the last school year.
The district did not have a mask requirement, but one will start on Monday in grades six-12, where most of the cases originated.
"I just had no idea that it was going to take off like it did so fast," Superintendent Mike Funk said. "That was a surprise."
The district is in Freeborn County, which has one of the highest COVID-19 transmission rates in the state and where 57% of vaccine-eligible residents have completed the vaccine series, compared with 66% statewide.
But state officials are concerned about more school outbreaks after most districts start classes after Labor Day, especially in districts that will not require masks in high transmission areas, which includes most areas of the state.
"We've heard some particularly troubling news from Albert Lea," Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said. "The transmission chain started just that quickly and now is not easily stopped."
Funk said many districts in the region have mask recommendations but not mandates, reflecting community opposition to them.
"In outstate Minnesota it is a different world than it is in the metro in terms of beliefs about mask mandates," he said.
The Albert Lea school board took the "prudent" approach of recommending masks and allowing administrators to change the policy throughout the year as needed, Funk said.
The requirement will apply to middle and high schoolers but not to elementary students. Infections are not as common among elementary students. Because of the new mask requirement, which will be re-evaluated in mid-October, students who were in quarantine because of an exposure to an infected person can return to class if they don't have symptoms and aren't waiting for test results.
"Kids are going seven to 10 days in quarantine and it is not a great way to start the school year," Funk said. "It is a very disruptive learning environment."
Last year, Albert Lea did not reach 36 COVID-19 infections until the 35th day of school.
Malcolm said the state does not have the authority to mandate masks in schools and that it is "strongly urging" districts to follow the advice about masks, social distancing, keeping sick kids at home and urging vaccinations for those who are eligible.
"We are concerned to hear reports that at some school districts and schools the fact that we as a state are no longer mandating these prevention measures is being misunderstood to mean that the recommendations are not important or that we don't feel that they are essential to implement," she said.
Gov. Tim Walz said Thursday that state mandates are not expected to return any time soon.
Malcolm said any new COVID-19 policies would involve input from the Legislature.
"At this point that really needs to be a shared conversation between the governor and the Legislature about what kind of statewide policies need to be implemented," she said.
Malcolm said this is "something we are beginning to talk about" but they are "not at the point yet of recommending specific things."
On Friday, the Minnesota Department of Health announced 1,912 confirmed COVID-19 cases and six additional deaths, bringing the state's pandemic totals to 644,190 infections and 7,799 fatalities.
The percentage of people who test positive for COVID-19 continues to increase, with 6.2% of tests detecting the coronavirus that causes the disease. That's up from 1.1% in late June.
A total of 5,024 new first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine were reported to state officials, leaving the state just 10 doses away from reaching 3.3 million Minnesotans with at least one shot.
The state's hospitals were caring for 590 COVID-19 patients, including 166 in intensive care.
Cases among children were up 50% from the previous week, with 324 cases in schools, camps and child-care settings.
More children are needing hospitalization. Last year, 0.7% of children needed hospital care.
"Now we are seeing that at 1.5 percent," state infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann said. "That is still a low number, but that is a doubling of what we saw last fall and that is concerning."
Freeborn County is seeing a case growth rate of 56 per 100,000 residents, the third highest in the state, according to Mayo Clinic.
In August, there were 331 COVID-19 cases in the southern Minnesota county, along with 14 hospitalizations, including four needing intensive care.
Funk said the district will urge its 1,300 high school students to get vaccinated, emphasizing that fully vaccinated kids will not need to quarantine if they are exposed to a case.
The number of active cases has fallen to 30 but more than 300 students are in quarantine.
"What we are seeing at Albert Lea is we are getting hammered at our high school," he said. "If you are going to be bringing these kids back in an environment with no mask, be prepared to shift, because we did not have a good experience."
Glenn Howatt • 612-673-7192