David Perry had been waiting for months to learn whether his two middle-school children will be heading back to their Shoreview school in the fall.
He was still left hanging Thursday after Gov. Tim Walz announced a localized, model-driven approach to opening schools in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Decisions on whether to return to class, continue distance learning, or use some hybrid of both, will depend on the number of COVID-19 cases in a given area and a school’s ability to meet health and safety standards. School districts are expected to announce in the coming weeks one of three learning models they will use based on the formula laid out by the administration.
“I don’t feel like I know any more today about what is going to happen in September than I did yesterday, and we’ve been building up to this big announcement,” said Perry, whose son has Down syndrome and autism spectrum disorder. The family needs more time to plan for his education. “I don’t feel I’m any closer to understanding what’s going to happen with my kids or my work schedule,” Perry said.
Reactions to the decision from parents, lawmakers and educators were mixed immediately following the announcement Thursday, in part because much is still unknown about what will happen in each school district. The order applies to public school districts and charter schools, but not private schools.
Supporters praised the move as a science-driven approach to reopening schools that keeps students, teachers and staff safe. DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman said she was pleased that Walz also announced plans to pump an additional $250 million of coronavirus relief funding into classrooms as they prepare for new social distancing measures. Among them will be a requirement for those who return to the classroom to wear masks.
“Our districts need additional resources to provide the high-quality education we expect while keeping Minnesotans safe,” Hortman said.
Denise Specht, president of teachers union Education Minnesota, said the plan leaves many decisions to local school boards and administrators, stressing that a “tremendous amount of work” remains before school buildings can be reopened to large numbers of students and staff. But she said her first impression is that the plan is one that “educators can support.”
“Educators want to be back in their classrooms with their students, but only if it can be done safely,” she said. “The governor’s plan uses the latest data and best science to guide districts toward the right choice between distance learning, in-person classes or a hybrid of the two.”
But critics said the plan is too little, too late.
Republicans in the Legislature have pushed to give local districts complete control over when — and how — to reopen their schools. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said Walz’s announcement “didn’t provide much clarity” to parents and schools.
“Parents are anxious about managing their work schedules, how their students will meet educational goals, and wondering how they will keep their family safe,” he said. “Today’s announcement leaves more questions than answers.”
Some Republicans tempered their criticism of the administration’s plan, saying they appreciated that local districts will have some role. But they continue to be critical of Walz’s use of his emergency powers, which he used to close school buildings in March to limit the spread of the virus.
“Democrat Gov. Tim Walz continues to lead this state unilaterally, circumventing the state Legislature to make decisions impacting all Minnesotans,” said Minnesota GOP Party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan. “Today the Governor exhibited another overreach of power in making decisions about our children’s education by himself.”
Many Republicans have backed President Donald Trump’s push to reopen schools for in-person classes in the fall. Vice President Mike Pence and Betsy DeVos, secretary of education, visited a private school in North Carolina on Wednesday that has reopened to students.
“There are so many other aspects of a child’s health and well-being that are dealt with at our schools that we really do believe it’s in the best interest of our children to be back in the classroom,” Pence said. “Heeding to the guidance issued from the CDC and state and local authorities, we believe we can safely reopen our schools.”
Minneapolis Public Schools announced they will continue remote learning at the start of fall classes, but most districts are still waiting to see how they’ll proceed. In an e-mail from Rochester Public Schools on Friday, Heather Nessler, executive director of communications for the district, said they expect to make their decision on which learning model to use by the end of the first week in August.
“In all three models, the safety of our students and staff is paramount. Second only to safety, is the learning experience for our students,” Nessler wrote. “Our students deserve a high-quality, engaging, 21st century learning experience, no matter which model we are using.”
Stephanie Johnson, a parent of three boys in the Bloomington School District, said the plan was ultimately more complicated that she expected, but she’s pleased it leaves some local control.
Still, she’s frustrated by how little time districts have to prepare and how much uncertainty remains. The plan also requires districts to let parents continue distance learning with their children if they choose, no matter what model their district uses.
Johnson is not sure what she’ll decide for her sons in the fall. “My kids are just as confused as the rest of us,” she said. “They miss their friends and learning in the classroom, but they are also fearful of the virus.”
Staff writers Mara Klecker and Erin Golden contributed to this report.