The Minnesota Department of Health has begun publicly reporting on COVID-19 outbreaks in schools, listing the buildings in which five or more students or staff members have tested positive for the virus within a two-week period.

For the first time, the state is also tracking the number of overall cases in schools on its website, in reports that will be updated weekly. The statistics posted Friday showed outbreaks with five or more cases in seven school buildings across the state, including three different schools in Martin County, in southern Minnesota.

The new updates show that the virus has infiltrated schools across the state; more than 500 school buildings have had at least one positive case since Aug. 1. But a majority of those schools have not seen widespread outbreaks as a result. The seven schools currently on the list of active outbreaks are the only schools that have reported five or more cases since August.

Kris Ehresmann, infectious disease director at the Health Department, said that weeks into the start of the school year, officials are still assessing what role schools are playing in the spread of the virus. But she said it's notable that the "vast majority" of schools that have reported COVID-19 cases haven't seen the virus spread beyond one person.

"I think that's very positive. We're not seeing large outbreaks at all that have been associated with a school setting," she said.

Schools with five or more COVID-19 cases include the three in Martin County, where more than three dozen local cases have been linked to a funeral: Fairmont Jr./Sr. High School, Martin Luther High School and St. Paul Lutheran School. Other schools on the list are Albert Lea Senior High School, Brainerd Senior High School, Hinckley Elementary School and Isanti Middle School.

In total, 864 cases have involved people who spent time in public and private schools in August and September. About half of that number involved students and half school staff. Ehresmann said those numbers don't necessarily represent cases that were contracted in school buildings; they are people who tested positive and had spent time in a school when they could have spread the virus to others.

Because the state is only releasing the names of schools with at least five cases, it is difficult to determine where most of the school-linked cases have occurred. Ehresmann said her department directs schools to first notify people who have come into close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. After that, school leaders are encouraged to notify the rest of the school community that they've had a positive case, as a "courtesy."

"There's not a public health need for [broader notification], particularly in a position where we have so much transmission occurring at the community level," Ehresmann said.

The state is releasing only the names of schools with at least five cases because they are more likely to involve the virus spreading between people at school, not elsewhere in the community, she said. Schools will be removed from that list if they have no new cases within a 28-day period.

The number of cases in the broader community is a critical factor in determinations about whether schools can be fully open for in-person instruction or limited to hybrid instruction or distance learning. New county data released this week showed that increased spread of the virus has dropped the number of counties in which in-person classes should be considered. Last week, 24 counties had infection rates low enough to allow for students to be back in school full time. This week, the number dropped to 11 counties.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Health said Friday that 2,805 cases have been reported at 97 Minnesota colleges and universities. Cases linked to higher education campuses have resulted in nine hospitalizations and three people in intensive care units since Aug. 1.

Speaking at a news conference for high school journalists on Friday, Gov. Tim Walz and officials from the state health and education departments said students and community members can play an active role in determining whether the number of school-linked cases go up or down. They repeated calls for Minnesotans to wear masks, be diligent about washing their hands and to practice social distancing in public.

One student asked whether students should expect to be able to return to classes full time without wearing masks during this school year.

Deputy Education Commissioner Heather Mueller said that's likely to be a tall order, requiring a major drop in cases over a period of weeks.

"I'm going to be honest: I don't know that this year is going to be coming back without masks," she said.

Erin Golden • 612-673-4790