The continuing spread of COVID-19 in Minnesota is pushing a growing number of suburban school districts into distance or hybrid learning, and it is revealing widespread confusion over how schools make those decisions and what they mean for school sports and activities.
At least a dozen metro districts have decided or are considering a shift to a more restrictive learning model. The White Bear Lake, Centennial and Spring Lake Park districts will move middle and high school students to distance learning in early November. Elk River and Forest Lake will move elementary students from full in-person instruction to a hybrid model. Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan and Mounds View are warning parents that secondary students may soon shift to distance learning, should virus case counts continue to rise.
Meanwhile, Anoka-Hennepin, the state's largest district, announced Friday that it would shift middle and high schools to distance learning and shut down school activities, citing county virus data, projected trends and direction from state and local health officials. But three days later, the district's board voted to allow sports and other school programs to continue, prompting a vigorous mix of celebration and criticism — and touching off plenty of questions about schools, sports and decisionmaking amid the pandemic.
On Tuesday, Gov. Tim Walz said he knows sports and other school activities are an important part of young people's lives, but he expressed concern about allowing students to participate in extracurricular programs at a time when they have to take all of their classes at home.
"What we're a bit nervous about now is how we certainly can't have the activities take precedence over trying to get the kids back in the schools as safely as possible," he said.
For now, however, districts like Anoka-Hennepin can keep playing football and participating in cross-country meets even as classes are moved online.
Deputy Education Commissioner Heather Mueller said that while the state's guidelines say districts that shift to distance learning because of widespread virus activity must discontinue extracurricular activities, Anoka-Hennepin technically doesn't fall into that category.
According to county virus data from the Minnesota Department of Health, Anoka County's numbers are high enough to warrant distance learning, while Hennepin County's are lower. But Mueller said the state is increasingly also looking at how much the virus is spreading inside schools and what's happening in communities closest to local schools, rather than in a county as a whole.
Putting all of that together, Mueller said the district's move was proactive, not required by the state.
"They don't need to move into distance learning," she said, but added that her department supports the decision.
Speaking to school board members Monday, David Law, Anoka-Hennepin's superintendent, said he repeatedly sought clarification from the state about what additional data to consider and what that move would mean for school activities. He said he did not get specific guidance about the additional metrics and said he was told that moving to distance learning would mean no sports.
Tuesday, Law said the decisionmaking is complicated by the fact that the state has not done more to explain how it advises school districts to react to changing virus conditions, leaving the public to see the county data as the rule book.
"I don't want to use the word 'forced'; they didn't call up and say: 'Close or else,' " he said. "But I do want to say I met with all the Anoka County superintendents and our regional [Minnesota Department of Education] adviser, and there isn't anything else out there to make decisions with right now."
Other districts are following Anoka-Hennepin's lead. In a message to parents and school staff on Tuesday, Centennial Schools Superintendent Brian Dietz said the district would continue offering school activities, despite its upcoming move to distance learning.
"Centennial Schools and other districts can continue providing these opportunities for students unless we receive specific direction from the Minnesota State High School League or other State agencies," he wrote.
Erich Martens, executive director of the Minnesota State High School League, said the organization has sought to help schools interpret the COVID-related guidance from the Education Department and the league about sports and school activities, keeping student and safety at the forefront. He said he met with Law before the school board meeting on Monday.
"It's just a year in which the dynamics continue to change," Martens said. "The case numbers are challenging."
Andover football coach Tom Develice turned the situation into a teaching opportunity, saying coaches told players Friday that "sometimes that's how life is. All your hopes and dreams and goals hit a roadblock and you have to be able to handle adversity."
When the result of Monday's vote was known, Develice emphasized to his players that they needed to temper their excitement with a renewed commitment to staying safe. "We got more time together," he said. "We have to continue to be smart."
But some districts remain unsure of how far they can, or should, push the state's guidance. Tony Taschner, spokesman for the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan schools, said district leaders have been following written state guidelines, with an understanding that a move to distance learning because of increasing county virus cases means activities will be off the table.
Taschner said schools' efforts to adapt to the pandemic are made harder when plans are unclear or hard to follow.
"If we're all following a different idea, it's not a very consistent or effective approach," he said.
Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker can order a school or district to shut down its extracurricular programs if it was ordered to move to distance learning, but that hasn't happened so far. It's not clear exactly what could prompt that move, since state agencies have not released specific thresholds or guidance for other virus-related data, like student and staff cases in schools or test positivity rates. Mueller noted that the situation can vary widely.
"We have been so used to things almost being the same across the board when it comes to education and schools, from what the school day looks like to how activities and athletics function — everything is pretty much the same," she said. "And this not the same."
Osseo athletic director Bill Quan said he's followed the discussion in Anoka-Hennepin closely, knowing his district could soon be facing a similar situation, and waiting to get more clarification.
"With COVID, you're learning that you can't get too far ahead of the game," he said. "You'll just be wasting your time."
Staff writers Jim Paulsen and Paul Klauda contributed to this report.