High school students laid off due to the COVID-19 pandemic are eligible for pandemic unemployment assistance, according to an order issued Tuesday by the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

The court ruled in favor of youth equity nonprofit Youthprise, finding that an unemployment law judge incorrectly determined that high school students were ineligible to receive pandemic unemployment assistance.

The decision makes $14 million to $28 million in benefits available for young people, said Youthprise Vice President Marcus Pope.

"We're thrilled, we're excited and we're a little exhausted from everything we've tried to do over the course of the last eight months to try to bring relief to young people," Pope said.

Pope thanked Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose support for the efforts helped move the case through the courts, and lawyer Greg Merz of Lathrop GPM, who took on the case pro bono.

Both Youthprise and the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) had urged the courts to act quickly because of the tight timeline for the benefits, which cover the weeks of Jan. 27, 2020, through December 2020, according to the order.

"Because it is not now known whether benefits will be available for applicants who have applied for benefits after Dec. 31, 2020, even as to periods of unemployment occurring before that date, time is of the essence in getting a resolution of the issue," according to a joint motion by DEED and Youthprise.

High school students who are eligible should apply to receive pandemic unemployment assistance by the Dec. 25 deadline.

Recent high school graduate Cole Stevens, one of the teens involved in the lawsuit, said he was shocked when his phone started blowing up with congratulatory text messages Tuesday night.

"I think it's still sinking in," Stevens said.

Stevens was laid off from his Bloomington food service job at the start of the pandemic and has spent the last several months making calls, telling his story and organizing alongside other affected high school students in the state. Stevens is one of the many young Minnesotans who work to help with bills at home.

"I think the number one thing I learned is that it's possible for someone like myself, 18 years old, no assets, family has no assets. No social capital, nothing at all," Stevens said. "When I went into this, I was literally just a kid who was broke, lost his job and didn't like what the government did to me."

Steve Grove, the DEED commissioner, said in a statement that DEED reviewed the order and is waiting for the published opinion from the court.

In the coming weeks, Youthprise plans to keep up the momentum to educate high school students about the money that is now available to them. In 2021, Youthprise hopes to repeal the 1939 law that locked high school students out of receiving state unemployment insurance in the first place, Pope said.

"That's all I'm going to be talking about: People need to go and apply for benefits" at the state's website, Stevens said.

After that, they'll be able to celebrate their achievements, Stevens said.

"We actually all still have to get together and celebrate this over Zoom, and hopefully we'll be able to really celebrate in person or something next year," Stevens said.

More information for high school students on accessing unemployment benefits is available on the Youthprise website.

Zoë Jackson covers young and new voters at the Star Tribune through the Report for America program, supported by the Minneapolis Foundation. 612-673-7112 Twitter: @zoemjack