The Minneapolis School District has become what's believed to be the first in the state to require unvaccinated high school athletes to be tested weekly for COVID-19.

Decisions surrounding COVID-19 testing and vaccine requirements are now left up to individual school districts in Minnesota and therefore not tracked by state agencies. The Minneapolis school board voted unanimously on Tuesday to require the testing during a period from Monday to March 4.

"We're not afraid to be a leader on this," Board Member Jenny Arneson said after the meeting. "I think this is a clear consensus — we recognize this measure will protect students and help keep students in the classroom."

The board can reevaluate the policy in the spring, when COVID-19 numbers may look different, Arneson said.

The new rule aligns with guidance issued by the state's health and education departments last spring, when officials urged student players as well as coaches and referees to get tested weekly. The Minnesota State High School League also recommends regular testing for students and staff.

Minneapolis schools will offer testing exemptions for students who've received the COVID-19 vaccination, which is now available to all school-aged children.

A handful of school districts around the country, including in Arizona, California, Colorado, Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia, have enacted various vaccine or testing mandates for student athletes.

Still other districts have passed or proposed mandates to all eligible students, something that state officials say is unlikely in Minnesota, where many school boards opted out of other COVID-related precautions, including requiring students to wear face masks.

In September, when the Minneapolis school board approved a vaccine or testing requirement for employees, Board Member Ira Jourdain offered an amendment that also would require district students to be vaccinated. That amendment was voted down by board members who cited the logistical challenges of testing and tracking the vaccination status for 30,000-plus students.

Arneson said limiting the weekly testing to student athletes offers a manageable way for the district to help stop "the disruptive cycle" of the coronavirus to keep more students in class and more athletes on the field or on the court.

The nature of winter sports means "it's not if you're going to have a close contact with [COVID-19], but when," she said. And the spread of the virus during games or practices means more students needing to quarantine and miss in-person classroom instruction.

"You may think this prioritizes sports over academics," Arneson wrote in her notes for Tuesday's meeting. "Actually, this supports our students in the classroom by increasing the testing, but more importantly the vaccine rate for a large group of students that show up daily in our classrooms."

Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440