More of Minnesota's largest school districts are shifting to distance learning, and school leaders are uncertain when they'll be able to bring students back for in-person instruction, or how they'll make that call.

With COVID-19 cases — and the number of students and school staff ill or in quarantine — surging across the state, there's been a flurry of announcements from schools abruptly shifting plans. Anoka-Hennepin, the state's largest district, announced it would move elementary students from hybrid to distance learning. Minneapolis and St. Paul said they would stop providing a limited number of in-person support services to their students, who have spent the entire school year in distance learning. Mounds View and Edina are moving all grade levels online, as are the districts in Duluth and St. Cloud.

A few districts have provided tentative dates for when they hope to bring students back. But many school leaders are telling parents they don't know when distance learning might end. Some superintendents fear a loss of control once they close buildings and send teachers back into the community, where the virus has generally been circulating more widely than within schools themselves.

"That is the big question," said Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts. "What is going to be our decisionmaking process, and [what are] the metrics we will be using to transition back to hybrid and in-person?"

Minnesota's guidance for schools during the pandemic says schools should base their opening and closing decisions on a number of factors, using county virus data as a baseline. But in recent weeks, state health and education officials have emphasized other metrics in their conversations with school leaders. They've said the number of cases inside school buildings, the rate of virus spread within local communities, and the number of people showing flu-like symptoms should be given just as much weight as the county numbers.

"It's not as scientific as it is artful," said Deputy Education Commissioner Heather Mueller.

But without specific, publicized details about what pushes a school or district into distance learning, some decisions have prompted confusion among parents, community members and in some cases, school superintendents themselves.

Some school leaders issued directives about shifts to hybrid or distance learning, or shutting down sports programs — only to quickly reverse them after neighboring districts made different decisions, or after school boards overruled them.

A few districts around the state have already flip-flopped from in-person to hybrid to distance learning — and back. But most in the wave now shifting students online are in unknown territory.

In a school board meeting this week, Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Ed Graff said he's not sure when the district might reach a point at which it could move to hybrid or full in-person instruction.

He said the district's advisory team, which includes public health officials, told him local case counts would need to drop considerably, and then stay at lower levels for nearly a month, before students could return. The state's guidance suggests that districts monitor numbers for 28 days — two incubation cycles of the virus — before making such a shift.

In a message to families on Friday, Mounds View Superintendent Chris Lennox said the growing number of students and staff pushed out of schools by the virus is making hybrid instruction "extremely challenging," and he's not sure when that will change.

"As much as we would like to return students to our schools, families should not expect a rapid transition back to blended learning," he wrote. "Distance learning will be in place until the case numbers decrease to a safer level and the District receives permission to safely reopen schools using the blended learning model."

With major holidays and school breaks approaching, many school leaders expect that any moves to distance learning in the next few weeks are unlikely to be reversed before 2021.

"Generally people are thinking that once they make this transition now, they will probably be in that until the end of the year," Croonquist said. "And they're hoping that things improve and after the first of the year we can start to look for a light at the end of the tunnel."

Mueller said state officials will continue to analyze new information about the virus and consider what information is most useful in decisions about how schools should operate. But she said members of the public following the news of schools opening and closing should take note of their own role in those decisions.

"In order to have our students back in the buildings, in order to have students back to the models that are best for in-person learning, we need the state to adhere to the guidance: wear a mask, if you're sick stay home, and go get a test," she said.

Staff writer Anthony Lonetree contributed to this report.

Erin Golden • 612-673-4790