State health and education officials are recommending — but not requiring — that Minnesota school districts mandate indoor mask-wearing for all students and teachers this fall, whether or not they have received a COVID-19 vaccine.
The new guidance from the state, released Wednesday, closely follows updated recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Both groups said masks are again needed in schools because of the ongoing surge in cases related to the spread of the delta variant of the coronavirus, and because people under 12 are not yet eligible for a vaccine.
But because Gov. Tim Walz no longer retains the emergency powers that allowed the state to mandate mask-wearing earlier in the pandemic, decisions about masking, social distancing and other precautionary measures will be left to local school districts. Only two statewide requirements remain: Schools must report all confirmed COVID-19 cases to the state, and students and staff must wear masks while on school buses, in line with federal guidelines for public transportation.
The updated state guidelines, said Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm, "provide a framework for local schools to help safeguard in-person learning."
State officials continued to urge everyone over the age of 12 to get vaccinated before the start of classes, school sports and activities to avoid the possibility of spreading the virus to people ineligible for the vaccine, or those at high risk of complications because of other conditions. Malcolm noted that there's only about five weeks until most schools begin their new year — close to the amount of time it takes to be fully vaccinated with two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine.
"Our kids deserve a worry-free, safe and fun fall back in the classroom, including participating in sports and doing activities with friends," Malcolm said. "And taking easy measures like getting vaccinated can help ensure they can do just that, and be kids again."
The state is also recommending that schools maintain 3 feet of distance between students when possible, improve ventilation, and require people who test positive for COVID-19 to quarantine for 10 days. Unvaccinated people who have close contact with someone who tested positive should also stay home, they said, but vaccinated people don't need to stay out of school unless they show symptoms of illness.
The state's new guidance is specific to K-12 schools. Officials said they are working with colleges, universities and child-care facilities on their COVID-19 safety plans, but will wait for any updated recommendations from the CDC before issuing any new directions for those institutions in Minnesota.
Districts making decisions about their own requirements are likely to encounter plenty of interest and pushback on both sides of what's become a politically charged issue. Shortly after the state health and education departments released their new recommendations, Republicans who serve on education committees in the state House were ready with a challenge.
A statement from Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, and Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, said the state should fully trust local school officials to make their own decisions, with "no undue influence or pressure from the Minnesota Department of Education to implement these recommendations."
Meanwhile, Education Minnesota, the state teachers union, released a statement in strong support of the state's guidance. Denise Specht, the union's president, said her group wants to ensure that all students can return for in-person learning this fall, and that the best way to ensure that goal would be for schools to "consistently and rigorously follow the guidance from state health officials and the CDC."
Many school districts have not yet said whether they'll require masks this fall. A spokesman for Minneapolis Public Schools said the district will finalize its plans in the next few weeks. St. Paul Public Schools spokesman Kevin Burns said his district will announce its plan Aug. 10.
"The data continues to be fluid as case rates change, and we want to take in as much information as possible," he said. "We will rely on the experts, rely on data and rely on science in order to make the best decision toward our ultimate goal, which is to keep students and staff safe and physically present in our schools."
Anoka-Hennepin Schools, the state's largest district, will recommend — but not require — that everyone in school buildings wear masks, said district spokesman Jim Skelly. That recommendation was updated following the announcements from the state and the CDC; previously, the district told families that masks were recommended only for unvaccinated people.
Guidelines released by the Osseo school district earlier in July said masks would be recommended for anyone unvaccinated, though the district cautioned that its plans could change depending on new recommendations from state or federal health officials. The Elk River district said in mid-July that masks would not be required, and did not make any specific recommendations. Wayzata's current back-to-school plan says masks are optional, but district officials said they are reviewing the new recommendations and will update families of any changes.
Other districts have specific plans for students too young to be vaccinated. In Duluth, children from age 2 to those attending fifth grade will be required to wear masks, and masks will be recommended for anyone unvaccinated.
In Rochester, school board members voted this week to require people under age 12 to wear masks. Mask wearing is recommended for older students and adults there, regardless of their vaccine status.
Erin Golden • 612-673-4790