State health officials on Thursday provided more direction to Minnesota schools as they sort out how — and if — they can safely welcome students back this fall.
A formal decision on whether schools will open is likely still more than a month away; the Minnesota Department of Health intends to make that call by the last week of July.
But the state did provide an outline for three separate scenarios, spelling out how schools may need to rearrange classrooms, minimize the numbers of students in cafeterias and on school buses, and react quickly if students or teachers become ill with COVID-19.
Districts across the state are expected to draft plans for all three scenarios: one in which all students would return to school in person without strict social distancing requirements; one in which they’d all remain at home for full-time distance learning; and a “hybrid model,” in which schools would offer a combination of remote instruction and in-person instruction. The hybrid model would come with social distancing rules and capacity limits for buildings and classrooms.
The state’s guidance said bringing all students back to school for something resembling a traditional school year would be an option “if state COVID-19 metrics continue to stabilize and/or improve.”
Officials with the state health and education departments said the evolving nature of the pandemic makes it difficult to give schools a more specific direction at this point in the summer.
“We know schools and families are anxious to know which scenario we will be in this fall,” said state Education Deputy Commissioner Heather Mueller, “and we just don’t know yet.”
Another 387 confirmed COVID-19 cases were reported Thursday, a slight uptick but continuing a wave pattern of daily increases and decreases that has persisted through June.
But Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm has warned that case trends could shoot up again as more businesses and activities open up and if people become less vigilant about taking precautions.
Of the 31,675 known cases, about 10% have been among those under the age of 20, who account for 104 of the 3,718 hospitalizations. No children have died of COVID-19 complications in Minnesota.
Most of the 1,344 deaths have been among the elderly, including 1,064 who were residents of long-term care facilities. Thirteen of the 19 new deaths announced Thursday were among nursing home or assisted-living residents.
Pre-existing medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease make it difficult for those infected to recover from COVID-19 complications.
However, one of the new deaths announced Thursday was of someone in their 30s who had no underlying health conditions.
“It is a stark reminder that COVID-19 is not only a disease of old age,” said Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director.
The number of people in Minnesota’s hospitals due to COVID-19 fell by six to 345 Thursday, with 171 in intensive care, a decrease of 10.
About 27,600 people who are known to have been infected no longer need to be isolated because they have recovered. Most people who catch the disease recover on their own.
The education guidance released Thursday included requirements that would have to be followed by schools and recommendations that school leaders could choose to implement.
The “hybrid” model would come with the longest list of rules, requiring that schools limit the number of people in school buildings and on school vehicles to 50% of maximum occupancy, allow for 6 feet of social distancing at all times, and develop a system for contactless pickup and delivery of meals for students on days when class is not in session. The planning document from the state notes that such a scenario “may be implemented if COVID-19 metrics worsen at the local, regional or statewide level.”
Officials said the spread of the virus in different areas of the state could lead to periods of time in which some schools and districts are operating with students in school buildings, while nearby schools are using the hybrid model or are exclusively online. Individual schools may also have to go back and forth between the models during the school year.
A hot spot in a county could trigger these changes, such as the recent increase in Mower County, where cases have jumped 23% over the last week.
The county, home to two meat processing plants, saw 140 new cases for a total of 744 since the pandemic began.
Because COVID-19 is spreading within the plants and within the community, state and local public health will offer free testing this weekend at the county fairgrounds in Austin.
School leaders have already spent weeks surveying families and beginning to draft plans for each of the three scenarios. On Thursday, some said they were looking forward to having more specifics from the state in a time when so much about the new school year seems uncertain.
“More clarity and more guidance will help us to better plan so we can better meet the needs of our students and staff and families,” said Rick Kaufman, community relations director and emergency management coordinator for Bloomington Public Schools. “And bring some peace of mind, to be honest, about all the anxiety people are feeling right now.”
David Law, superintendent of the Anoka-Hennepin School District, said he sees the additional directions as a positive step for districts scrambling to make many complex decisions in a short amount of time. He said even the many restrictions outlined for the hybrid model of instruction could be feasible, with a lot of planning.
“Do I want to be in a hybrid model? Absolutely not,” he said. “But if we have to be, is this more workable? Absolutely.”