All elementary schools in Minnesota will be allowed to open for hybrid or in-person instruction as soon as Jan. 18, if they are able to follow a newly expanded list of COVID-19 safety protocols.

The Wednesday announcement from Gov. Tim Walz marks a major shift in the state's guidelines for public schools during the pandemic, which had previously pushed most districts to distance learning as COVID-19 spread widely. Middle and high schools will still be subject to the state's original school reopening rules, and many that have moved to online learning will likely have to stay there until local virus cases drop significantly.

Walz called the change for elementary schools a "monumental move" that was prompted by a deepening understanding of where and how the virus is circulating, the ways to minimize its spread — and a growing concern about the academic, social and emotional losses for kids and families when school buildings are closed. New safety rules will include the mandatory mask and face-shield wearing by school staff and the option for staff members to get COVID-19 tests at school every two weeks.

School, Walz said, "is the safest and best place for many of our children to be."

"And now we believe we have both the experience, the knowledge and the resources necessary to make that not only an emotionally and academically safe place, but a physically, health-wise safe place for those students to be," he said.

It's unclear how many students will be back to the classroom in January. The state's revised plan opens the possibility for all elementary schools and early learning programs, but individual districts and charter schools will make those decisions.

Staffing is likely to be a major factor as schools weigh an in-person return; as COVID-19 has spread widely across Minnesota, many districts have shifted to distance learning because so many teachers and staff members were ill or quarantined, often because of virus exposure outside of school. This week, more than half of Minnesota's public districts and charter schools reported that they were in full distance learning. Fewer than 50 of the state's more than 500 districts and charter schools had elementary students in buildings for full, in-person instruction.

But some school leaders were already indicating Wednesday that they intended to start bringing elementary students back on Jan. 18. That includes the state's largest district, Anoka-Hennepin, where Superintendent David Law said he was "thrilled" to learn about the state's new rules and timeline for reopening elementary schools.

Law said he would send a voice mail to Anoka-Hennepin families Wednesday, followed by a more formal notification Friday, that kindergartners, first- and second-graders would be back for in-person instruction Jan. 18, followed two weeks later by older elementary students. He said he expects several other north metro districts will be taking similar steps.

"I'm so excited to get this opportunity to bring our kids back to school," he said. "Our community is so hungry for it."

Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, said early feedback from school leaders in the metro area has been generally positive. Many were working on plans to bring students back and are glad to have the OK from the state. But he said staffing remains the biggest question. Schools have struggled to find enough substitutes to fill in behind absent teachers and staff.

"You can't be offering in-person instruction unless you have the staff available to do that," he said.

Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the state teachers union, said in a statement that the plan is "workable" — if schools follow through on enhanced safety measures and people do their part to stop the spread of the virus outside school buildings.

The state's revised plan requires schools to follow existing COVID-19 safety guidelines, plus a few more. The state will provide face masks and shields for school staff. Students must wear a face covering, including for indoor physical activity like gym class. Elementary students will need to eat all meals in their classrooms, or outside if the weather permits.

In addition, the state will train school staff and provide saliva COVID-19 test kits so teachers can be tested for the virus every other week, if they choose. Schools are also expected to add clear barriers to classrooms and other spaces where teachers and classroom assistants cannot be 6 feet away from students.

Schools offering in-person instruction are "strongly recommended" to allow for at least 3 feet of physical distancing between students, staff and other people in school buildings.

"If districts meet the new high bar for safety for students and staff, and there are swift, serious consequences for the few employers who might cut corners, this plan could get more buildings open for the littlest learners," Specht said.

A move from distance to hybrid or in-person learning will require a "rolling start," with no more than three grade levels returning to the building for the first two weeks. For example: A school might bring back kindergarten, first- and second-grade pupils during the last two weeks of January, with third-, fourth- and fifth-graders joining them in February.

Some of the state's largest districts indicated that they would notify families later in the week about their plans. St. Paul Public Schools spokesman Kevin Burns said the district, which has been contemplating a shift to hybrid learning, would communicate with parents by the end of the day Thursday. Minneapolis, Osseo and Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school leaders were also drafting notes to families.

Minnesota's shift for elementary students comes as districts elsewhere around the U.S. move to prioritize in-person learning for young children. Public schools in New York City reopened for elementary students earlier this month. Chicago Public Schools is pushing to bring back elementary students by February, though its plan has been stalled by legal challenges from the teachers union. In Wisconsin, where districts can make school reopening decisions without state input, Gov. Tony Evers didn't offer specific direction for schools but said distance learning has not worked well for many students.

Minnesota districts still will have to work with local and state health and education officials if they want to bring middle and high school students back to school buildings. Secondary schools moving to hybrid or in-person learning will use the same rolling start process and follow the same expanded safety measures as elementary schools.

Erin Golden • 612-673-4790