Minnesota schools will close for at least eight days starting Wednesday under a new order from DFL Gov. Tim Walz, marking a dramatic shift in the state’s approach to combating the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Under the order issued Sunday, teachers and school administrators across the state must continue to meet and implement plans to teach students from afar in the event schools must be closed past March 27. It also keeps elementary schools open to provide child care for health-care providers and emergency medical personnel who are directly responding to cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.

“We cannot wait until the pandemic is in our schools to figure things out,” Walz said, announcing the closure alongside Mary Cathryn Ricker, the state’s education commissioner.

It’s an unprecedented move that will affect nearly 900,000 students in public and charter schools across the state, and it comes after a weekend when the number of known COVID-19 cases spiked to 35 in Minnesota, three of those caused by person-to-person contact.

A growing number of states have shut down schools. They include Wisconsin, where Gov. Tony Evers on Friday ordered the closing of all K-12 schools, public and private. The action affects more than 1 million children. Last week the University of Minnesota suspended all in-person classes until April 1.

But the order marks a sudden change of messaging from the Walz administration, which declared a state of emergency on Friday and moved to limit the size of public gatherings in response to the virus, but said schools should remain open.

At the time, health officials stressed that epidemiological evidence showed that COVID-19 is not spreading rapidly among children, and they said that’s still the case.

This weekend’s cases include a Dakota County teenager, the youngest known person with COVID-19 in Minnesota.

That teenager is associated with a school, according to health officials, who are contacting school officials.

Walz said he changed course after a weekend of back-to-back meetings with parents, school officials and guidance from former governors Mark Dayton and Tim Pawlenty.

He didn’t make the call lightly, he said, knowing the closure will cause child care complications for families and could limit access to nutritious meals for some low-income students.

The order also requires schools to continue providing mental health services and meals to students in need.

Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said they received new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and said school closures do play a role in mitigating the spread of the virus.

“This epidemiological evidence is only part of a complete set of actions that need to be weighed,” Malcolm said, adding: “It’s natural that we should be questioning everything.”

Districts are required to close by Wednesday, but some, including St. Paul Public Schools, are choosing to close as early as Monday. St. Paul teachers and staff, however, were being told to report to school Monday to work on distance-learning plans.

Minneapolis Public Schools said classrooms will be open Monday to help staff and families prepare for the closure, and they will close on Tuesday.

Wayzata and ISD 196 (Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan) said classes are off starting Monday. Moorhead Area Public Schools said schools are closed immediately following the executive order.

The closure also coincides with some districts’ spring breaks.

Ricker said waiting until Wednesday to require schools to close will allow some students to return to their classroom on short notice to get medication, books and other supplies they might need.

“We are not accommodating for a couple snow days, we are planning for the potential for weeks of distance learning,” she said.

She said the state expects schools to continue to pay hourly workers like nutrition staff and school bus drivers and encouraged school districts to make sure they are “incorporated into our state’s distance learning plans.”

The move to close schools was supported by members of both political parties and the state’s largest teachers union, Education Minnesota.

“Public schools play a complicated and crucial role in the smooth functioning of every community in the state,” said Education Minnesota President Denise Specht.

“Minnesota’s educators are problem solvers, community leaders and ready to step up. We will keep students and ourselves safe.”

The ramifications of the closure will be up for debate at the Legislature, where Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said they plan to continue “reevaluating to determine what’s best for Minnesotans,” he said. “It’s a very fluid and changing situation.”

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said the move was in the “best interest of Minnesotans” and noted there’s already a bill introduced to make sure hourly workers are compensated for school days canceled due to COVID-19.

Walz said he will ask the Legislature to consider financial relief packages for families following the closures, as well as proposals to require paid time off for all workers in the event of a pandemic.

The executive order also directs the Department of Human Services to submit a proposal by Friday addressing strategies for supporting child care providers.

 

Staff writer Torey Van Oot contributed to this report.

Twitter: @bbierschbach