All Minnesota schools should offer some form of in-person instruction by March 8, Gov. Tim Walz said Wednesday, announcing a move he characterized as "critical" for students' and families' well-being, mental health and economic stability in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Many districts have already started bringing secondary school students back to classrooms, and Walz said other middle and high schools could reopen as soon as Feb. 22.

A majority of the state's elementary schools are already providing face-to-face instruction, following an earlier pivot by state officials to prioritize in-person learning for the youngest students.

In a Wednesday afternoon address, Walz said he's confident Minnesota is ready to reopen classrooms because it has developed and invested in the kind of efforts needed to operate schools in a pandemic: prioritizing vaccines for teachers, providing easy to access testing for school staff and students, and driving down the spread of the virus with mask-wearing and limits on group gatherings.

"It's time to get our students back in school, and we can do that now safely," he said.

Walz said he is upbeat after a yearlong pandemic that has caused 6,390 COVID-19 deaths and 475,379 known infections, including 10 deaths and 783 infections reported Wednesday, because Minnesota avoided a post-Christmas surge in viral transmissions and has provided at least first doses of vaccine to a quarter of teachers and school staff. The positivity rate of diagnostic testing has dropped below the caution threshold of 5% to 3.7%, and the number of Minnesota hospital intensive care beds filled with COVID-19 patients has dropped from a peak of 399 on Dec. 1 to 54.

The governor credited statewide restrictions on group gatherings and businesses and restaurants, as well as public mask-wearing and social distancing, for preventing that surge and buying time for the state to gain more vaccine and implement a testing program for educators. More than 695,000 people in Minnesota have received vaccine, and 246,431 of them have completed the two-dose series that proved in clinical trials to be 95% protective against infection with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

"This news is positive," Walz said. "We're beating this thing, getting the vaccines out."

He encouraged even skeptics of masks and other strategies to "buy in" to them for 90 days, after which Minnesota might have provided vaccine to 1.5 million people and be in a much stronger position against the pandemic. Vaccines are currently prioritized for health care workers, long-term care residents, senior citizens and educators.

An evolving strategy

Walz said the safety measures that will be required for in-person learning should help limit the virus' spread in school buildings. Students should stay 6 feet apart — or at least 3 feet, when that's not possible — throughout the school day. Schools must track where students sit to eat lunch, in case they need to trace the spread of the virus. Teachers and other school staff are "strongly recommended" to wear both face masks and face shields, and to take advantage of testing available every two weeks. Officials are also encouraging families and students who opt for in-person or hybrid learning to get COVID-19 tests every two weeks.

The state has dropped an earlier requirement that districts reopen classrooms to only a few grade levels at a time, and said they can proceed without the once-required consultation with state health and education officials.

Several Minnesota GOP leaders quickly criticized Walz's plan, saying it was too heavy-handed and didn't go far enough to give districts control of their reopening decisions. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said Republicans would continue to move forward with a bill that would give local school leaders authority over those decisions.

Minnesota's approach to reopening schools is more aggressive than the guidance issued last week by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which uses both local COVID-19 case and test positivity rates to determine whether schools should have in-person learning and activities. Walz said the CDC guidance was based on the reality that some U.S. schools don't have broad access to testing and vaccines, whereas Minnesota has an educator testing program and is one of eight states to prioritize educators for vaccination.

"We were better prepared than what the CDC put out for states," Walz said.

Minnesota isn't using the CDC's exact measurements for assessing the safety of in-person learning. It will instead look at local COVID-19 case rates but also whether schools have 5% or more of their students absent due to influenza-like illness. Schools within the same counties might take different approaches based on that data, and whether their hallways and classrooms permit social distancing or not.

Student absences due to generic flu-like symptoms are a fast and adequate warning sign of COVID-19 concerns, said Dan Huff, assistant commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health.

Schools assess plans

After Walz's announcement, some school districts told families they'd work quickly to determine whether they'd be bringing students back soon or in larger numbers. The Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school district said it would accelerate its timeline by two weeks, bringing high school seniors back for hybrid learning Feb. 22.

Anoka-Hennepin Schools, the state's largest district, reopened its middle and high schools for hybrid instruction over the last few weeks. Superintendent David Law said the district will need to survey families to see how many students would want to return to full classrooms, then determine if they can meet the state's safety rules with that number of students. Any changes wouldn't take effect until late March.

There are also major staffing and scheduling challenges because teachers will have to continue working with both students in the classroom and those who opt to stay at home.

"Those are probably the two biggest question marks," he said.

Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the state teachers union, said many districts and teachers have already figured out how to operate in person in a way that minimizes health risks. But she said challenges remain for those that don't have those plans in place, or have other obstacles to meeting safety requirements or having enough staff.

"Our schools should be the safest place in any community, and there are a few places where it's still a little tough," Specht said.

The St. Paul and Minneapolis school districts, the state's second and third largest, were among the slowest to reopen elementary schools and have faced the most vocal criticism — and some legal challenges — from teachers concerned about safety plans. Both said Thursday that they were examining how to begin bringing older students back but did not offer a specific timeline.

In a letter to staff, Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Ed Graff said the district would be surveying parents, assessing buildings and determining its next steps. He indicated that the process might begin with targeted in-person support for some secondary students in March. St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard said in a statement that the district was working to bring back some older students as soon as Feb. 22, but it is still sorting out logistics like transportation, staffing and classroom capacity.