Minneapolis Public Schools has outlined its plan to bring middle and high school students back into the classroom full time this spring, after what by then will have been more than a year of distance learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under the plan, students in grades nine through 12 will return to in-person learning on April 12, followed by those in grades six through eight on April 19.

In the meantime, targeted academic services for secondary students will begin next week, with each school building inviting students for voluntary in-person help. High schoolers receiving special-education services will go back to classrooms on March 22.

Schools must still offer a distance learning option, and families will have until March 9 to complete a registration form to choose between in-person or remote classes.

"We worked tirelessly to err on the side of health and safety, but with [COVID] infection rates declining, we believe this is an appropriate time to bring back our secondary students," Superintendent Ed Graff said at a school board meeting Tuesday.

Gov. Tim Walz recommended last week that all Minnesota schools offer some form of in-person instruction by March 8, provided that they follow safety measures. Graff said the timing of the announcement was unexpected but added the district was already focused on planning to reopen secondary schools.

Minneapolis elementary schools began reopening on Feb. 8 and welcomed third- through fifth-graders to in-person classes on Monday. About 40% of the district's elementary students have chosen to continue learning at home.

During the school day, students in school buildings are to stay 6 feet apart, or at least 3 feet apart when 6 feet isn't possible. The state also is requiring schools to arrange student seating for lunch as a way to track possible virus spread.

Teachers and school staff are encouraged to wear face masks and shields and take a COVID-19 test every two weeks. Officials are also encouraging students and families to take advantage of free community testing.

School district leaders said they are still in the process of addressing the transportation and staffing challenges of bringing all grade levels back into school buildings. Safety measures require reduced capacity on buses, including Metro Transit buses that older students use to get to school.

The district so far hasn't received guidance on how to handle large events like prom or graduation, Graff said.

Reopening more schools will present staffing challenges, which have already been felt at the elementary level. Work-from-home accommodations and absences due to illness or quarantine will require the district to tap into other staffing solutions such as student teachers or a pool of on-call educators.

More than 30 staff members from the district's central offices already have been reassigned to support and teach elementary students, said Maggie Sullivan, the district's senior human resources officer.

At the meeting Tuesday, Board Member Jenny Arneson said the topic of returning to in-person learning "remains an emotional topic for many people" and "presents conflict for us between health and academics."

"It's a difficult space for us to be in and it's a difficult space for educators to be in," she said.

Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440