Minnesota’s guidelines for how public schools can operate during the upcoming school year, which were announced Thursday, can be summed up in two words: it’s complicated.
The ultimate decision about whether your child receives in-person learning, full-time distance learning from home or a hybrid model is up to each public school district, including charter schools. Private schools are encouraged to follow the guidelines, but are not required to.
How much in-person learning can be offered will be dictated by county COVID-19 rates and whether schools can abide by a list of social distancing, ventilation, sanitation and other safety rules laid out by the state. And that might differ depending on whether your child is in elementary, middle or high school.
School districts are also required to provide full time distance learning for families that want it for any reason, regardless of how their schools are operating.
And there’s another layer of complexity — schools may need to change operations as virus case rates change throughout the year.
Some districts have already made their decisions for how the school year will begin, but others have until the week before classes start to make their announcements.
Here’s a breakdown of what the state’s Safe Learning Plan means:
The most important factor is the number of COVID-19 cases per 10,000 people in the county where your school district is located. If a district crosses multiple counties, the district will need to take both counties’ rates into consideration.
To make matters more confusing, the rates school districts will rely on are different from those you might see published in other places.
The Star Tribune’s COVID tracker and many other publicly available sources often show rates that encompass all the cases detected since the virus arrived in Minnesota. The data being used for school reopening consideration is based on tests conducted in a recent 14-day period.
For example, Hennepin County’s overall rate as of the end of July is 136 per 10,000 people. But the most recent 14-day rate is 20.9 per 10,000 people.
When deciding how much in-person learning to offer, districts can also take into consideration the reasons why a county’s COVID rate might be high. Is it due to an isolated outbreak at a local employer that may be unlikely to affect the schools? Or is there widespread community transmission?
Districts are also asked to consider whether those rates are increasing compared to the previous period.
The latest 14-day rate data released Thursday by the Minnesota Department of Health show 24 counties have rates that are 50% or more higher now than during the previous period. The most recent rates are based on tests taken between July 5 and July 18.
Schools are allowed to offer in-person learning for all students if the rate is below 10 per 10,000 people.
Once the rate starts to go over that, the rules tend to favor keeping elementary school students in school as much as possible, while older kids move to hybrid or distance learning. Research has shown more limited transmission of COVID-19 in younger children, and distance learning tends to be more difficult with younger learners.
Middle schools and high schools would have to move to hybrid learning once the rate is above 10 per 10,0000. Elementary schools aren’t required to do that until it is above 20 per 10,000.
If the COVID rate is above 50, all students are required to do full-time distance learning.
Based on current rates, schools in Pipestone, Lincoln and Murray counties would be required to do full-time distance learning for all students. There are 40 counties that could be allowed to do all in-person learning if school started now, while the remaining 44 counties face some form of hybrid model.
The rates alone don’t necessarily dictate what a school district will do. Schools can choose to dial back to a more restricted model than what the rates allow.
For example, Minneapolis Public Schools has already announced that it will start the year with online classes, even though the current virus conditions could allow for a combination of in-person and distance learning.
St. Paul Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard said he also would recommend that his district — the state’s second-largest — should begin the year online.
Mounds View Schools announced all students will be in a hybrid model, even though Ramsey County’s rate currently would allow elementary students to be in-person full time.
And while local districts can decide to open if they meet all the metrics, the state’s education commissioner still has the power to order them to shift to distance learning if officials determine the health situation is worsening.
Since the number of students are not evenly spread throughout the state, one way to estimate how many Minnesota public school students will be at home vs. in a school building is to look at the percentage of students.
Based on the current rates, about 40% of Minnesota’s public school students would be able to have in-person school if their districts choose to do so and can meet the other requirements, although this would largely be elementary students.
About 1% of students, mostly in districts located in southwestern Minnesota or older students, would be required to do distance learning from home. The remainder, nearly 60%, would be in some form of hybrid model that involves some days at home and some days in school.
What happens if the COVID rates change in a school district — for better or worse — after school starts?
State officials say they will review the rates “on a regular basis,” which will likely be weekly.
Confirmed COVID cases among students or staff would also prompt districts to consider moving to a more restrictive model, especially if the cases are traced back to exposure within the school or if there are multiple cases identified close together in time, indicating a higher level of transmission. Schools are also encouraged to consider whether they can maintain staffing levels.
Regardless of what the COVID rate data in a county is showing, school districts may choose a more restrictive model because meeting the other requirements might be too challenging, or in response to feedback from parents and teachers.
These other requirements for in-person or hybrid learning include requiring face coverings (except for certain medically exempt people), social distancing, routine hygiene practices, frequent cleaning, monitoring for illness, limiting nonessential visitors and having adequate water and ventilation systems. Schools also won’t be allowed to have large gatherings or other activities that don’t allow for social distancing.
In a hybrid learning model, school facilities and buses can’t exceed 50% capacity.
A hybrid model could look different from one district to another. For example, some will have half their students in school on Mondays and Tuesdays, with the other half on Thursdays and Fridays while Wednesday is a cleaning day. Some are opting for an every other day approach, with Fridays being reserved for catch-up or extra attention for special needs students.
The state will provide each student and staff member with one cloth face covering. Schools will also receive three disposable face masks for each student, plus face shields for all licensed teachers and half of the nonlicensed staff.
Go here for more answers to frequently-asked questions about these new school policies.