Minnesota is staying the course with its guidelines for school opening and closing decisions during the pandemic, even as political pressure to reopen schools intensifies and some large districts elsewhere in the U.S. make plans to return students to classrooms.

Five months after the state released its "Safe Learning Plan," state officials have no immediate plans to update the metrics schools have used this fall to determine when they must shift in and out of in-person, hybrid or distance learning. Rising spread of COVID-19 across Minnesota and widespread staffing shortages have sent more than half of the state's public districts and charter schools into full-time distance learning. And under the existing guidelines, which focus on county virus data as well as how much the virus is spreading within cities and school buildings, there's little indication that students could be back to schools anytime soon.

State officials, however, remain confident that the guidelines they developed over the summer are still the right plan for this stage of the pandemic. Deputy Education Commissioner Heather Mueller said the "concrete set of parameters" outlined in the state's guidance for schools have worked through the fall.

"Quite honestly, they have held up through the process," she said, "really helping to give a lot of guidance in not only the use of county-level data, but also the use of community data, as well as the school district data."

But some school leaders are pressing Gov. Tim Walz and the Minnesota Department of Education to provide clearer guidelines for when and how schools can return from distance learning. They say the state should continue to factor in new information, ranging from how much the virus spreads in school buildings to the challenges of pulling off hybrid instruction. Schools now have more information about how students are faring in different learning models, including some facing problems with higher absenteeism, failing grades and widening struggles with student mental health.

"We've asked the state to think about: You know the model you designed last summer and into the fall, do those thresholds still hold up, now that we've lived this for a while?" said Cory McInytre, superintendent of Osseo Area Schools.

Push is national

President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to make reopening schools a top priority in his first 100 days in office. Across the U.S., some large school districts have attempted to change their original plans, with mixed success.

In New York City, schools opened and then moved online. Now, the city is focused on ensuring elementary schools open and stay that way — with officials pointing to growing evidence that the virus has not spread widely in schools serving younger students. The district has implemented weekly virus testing, with a goal of maintaining full-time, in-person instruction, rather than using a hybrid model.

In Washington, D.C., and Chicago, school leaders have announced plans to reopen schools in early 2021, but have encountered challenges with staff shortages and, in Chicago, legal challenges from the teachers union.

In Minnesota, decisions to shift between learning models — and about limiting or ending sports and school activities — have sometimes left parents, and even school leaders, confused. Early in the school year, weekly reports on county virus data were seen as one of the most important factors. Districts sent notes to parents, warning of possible changes ahead when it looked like cases were rising to the thresholds outlined in the state's plan.

Soon, however, it was clear that the county numbers were not the gold standard for school decisions. Some districts kept students in buildings full time, even as case numbers soared, while neighboring schools were directed to send students home. There was widespread confusion over whether schools moving to distance learning could keep playing sports. Last week, with 86 of 87 counties having enough cases to consider distance learning, dozens of districts were still offering hybrid or full in-person instruction.

Deb Henton, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, said the state's efforts to provide local control to districts have been welcomed by some school leaders but have frustrated others. But no matter their perspective, she said, administrators share the concern that the difficult decisions are often hard to explain to parents and the community. She said schools need help from the state in communicating which factors are most important.

"What we don't want to see happen is that the public, and especially our families, kids and staff, look at a number and say: 'If our county numbers are above that, then any number is unsafe in the school,' " she said.

'We all have a part'

Tony Taschner, spokesman for the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school district, said both educators and parents are increasingly concerned about the wide-ranging impact of such a disrupted school year. He worries that if confusion over school decisions continues, it will make it harder to get people on board with any plan — including one to bring students back.

"As a school district sitting here, what do we want to do? We want to have kids in person," he said. "What are we able to do? That's where we need the guidance from the state."

Mueller said state officials share school administrators' goal of having students in the classroom as much as possible and that "nothing is off the table" as they work directly with schools to listen and consider the state guidelines. But she emphasized that at this point, the state is not ready to make any sweeping changes.

"We are meeting and partnering in this work, and it may result in a change — and it may not," she said.

Any effort to bring more students back for in-person instruction will depend as much on the availability of teachers and staff as the spread of the virus itself.

Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the state teachers union, said teachers will want to see districts looking to more than just virus case-count numbers as they make moves to bring students back. She said schools will need to be ready with sufficient staff and protective supplies. But she's skeptical many schools will be at that point anytime soon, unless communities do more to lower the spread of the virus outside school buildings.

"Until we get the spread under control, we should expect more of the same," she said. "If we want schools back open and if we want children back in buildings, we all have a part to play in this, we all have to do what we need to do."