More Minnesota schools will put their reopening plans to the test this week as school administrators keep a close eye on the spread of COVID-19 in their communities and brace for the possibility that they could have to pivot to distance learning.
While many of the state’s largest districts are starting their year with remote instruction, others are combining online classes with shortened weeks at school — or fully reopening. Under an order from Gov. Tim Walz, public school districts and charter schools have some flexibility in their reopening decisions, provided that the local spread of the virus remains below certain thresholds and that they can meet guidelines set by the state Department of Health.
Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said leaders of both public and private schools worked closely with the state to decide how — and if — they would reopen and will remain in close contact as the year continues. Each district has been assigned to a regional support team that will provide guidance on what to do if conditions worsen, or if an outbreak pops up among students or school staff.
“The support for those teams will endure for the entire school year,” she said. “It’s not just about propping them up for that first decision.”
The state’s reopening plan calls for schools to base their planning in part on the number of cases in their counties in recent weeks. Schools could consider full returns to in-person classes if they are in counties with fewer than 10 COVID-19 cases per 10,000 residents over a 14-day period. Schools in counties with higher case counts could attempt to reopen on a more limited basis for full- or part-time classes, with younger students getting priority for in-person instruction. In counties with more than 50 cases per 10,000 residents, classes would likely have to be fully remote.
Those numbers aren’t set in stone; some districts’ decisions are more complicated because they cover multiple counties. In others, district leaders have said they’re looking at the data to track whether case counts are higher in specific cities, or among racial groups, and factoring those numbers into their decisions.
All schools were told in June to make extensive plans for all three scenarios: distance learning, hybrid and in-person. Ricker said that’s because the evolving nature of the pandemic means it may be hard to stick with a single plan.
“We did anticipate in June that this coming year in our school communities some, if not all, could experience all three of the scenarios,” she said.
Districts have already shifted their plans. By mid-August, some that had announced they’d begin the year with hybrid instruction had shifted to remote learning, or opted to push back the first day of school. A few had to abruptly change the start date just before school was set to begin because of virus outbreaks among staff or students.
The Montevideo School District in west-central Minnesota canceled the first day of school and held the rest of the first week’s classes online, instead of in person, after two positive cases among teachers spiraled into nearly two dozen teachers in quarantine. Some may have been exposed at a social event held after staff conferences.
The start of the year was also delayed at Lourdes High School, a private school in Rochester, after school staff members tested positive for COVID-19, and at schools in the southwest Minnesota communities of Minneota and Ivanhoe.
Ricker said the state is finalizing an online portal, which will be accessible to the public, that shows which instructional model schools are using — and provides updates if schools change those plans.
The commissioner said state officials are also focused on ensuring that the state’s persistent achievement gap doesn’t worsen during the pandemic because of disparities in how and where students are attending school or receiving instruction.
“Every child still deserves a world-class education,” she said. “Even if we are in a pandemic, they deserve a safe and welcoming environment — even if that environment doesn’t have four walls anymore.”