Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Ed Graff is proposing the district begin offering full-time, in-person instruction to its youngest learners in February.

First up would be preschoolers and kindergartners on Feb. 8 and first- and second-graders on Feb. 10, followed by students in grades 3-5 on Feb. 22, under a recommendation to be presented to the school board on Tuesday.

"Many of our youngest learners are suffering in distance learning. Not just academically, but socially and emotionally as well," Graff wrote in an update to families Friday. "There are long-term consequences for them should they not have an opportunity to choose an in-person learning option."

Students still could remain in distance learning if they choose. The district provided registration information about the two options to families on Friday.

Last month, St. Paul, too, opted to forgo earlier plans for a hybrid of virtual and in-person learning by announcing it will begin bringing back elementary students full-time on Feb. 1 — in addition to a virtual-only option.

Minneapolis was the last of the state's five largest districts to outline plans for in-person instruction. Just before winter break, Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan announced that students in preschool through second grade would return five days a week on Jan. 21, followed by third-graders through fifth-graders on Feb. 4.

Gov. Tim Walz said nearly a month ago that elementary schools could reopen as soon as Jan. 18. In addition to calling for phased-in returns to the schools, the state also is requiring teachers and staff members to have both face masks and shields, and for schools to offer COVID-19 testing to staff every two weeks.

Graff said in his update he was mindful of health and safety concerns, and that with COVID-19 rates declining in the city, he believed it appropriate to offer a dual-path plan.

"We did not come to this decision lightly and it is not set in stone," he said. "If things take a turn for the worse, we will reassess."

Staffing had been a major problem for districts that opened their schools in the fall. Many students were forced to shift back to distance learning when teachers became ill or had to quarantine because of exposure to the virus.

The St. Paul Federation of Educators (SPFE) is circulating a petition calling for the district to delay a return to full-time, in-person instruction until all educators and staff members have a chance to be vaccinated. It is unlikely, however, that vaccines will be available before the Feb. 1 start.

During a virtual town hall meeting Thursday night, Jackie Turner, chief operations officer for the St. Paul district, said teachers are not expected to be vaccinated until late February, and that it is not known whether enough vaccines will be available for everyone.

Elementary teachers, food service workers and bus drivers will be among those given top priority, she said.

In its petition, SPFE agreed that students and educators should be back at school, but safe, too, and that vaccinations were the best route to protection and stability.

"Let's make sure when we open our schools, they stay open," the union said.

As of Friday evening, the petition had more than 2,800 signatures.

Staff writers Erin Adler and Erin Golden contributed to this report.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109