Minnesota elementary schools can reopen as soon as Jan. 18 if they can meet safety protocols outlined by the state Wednesday. Here's what that might mean for your school district.

Q: Will all schools be able to have in-person instruction in January?

A: No. The revised guidelines announced Dec. 16 apply only to elementary schools and early learning programs. Those schools will be permitted to offer hybrid or full, in-person instruction starting Jan. 18, as long as they follow expanded safety measures. But the decision is still up to local districts and charter schools; a district can opt to remain in distance learning.

Q: What grade levels are covered under the new rules?

A: The new guidelines apply only to grades that operate under an elementary school model, with students sticking with one group of students and one teacher for most of the day. In buildings that house elementary and secondary students, grade levels that operate more like a middle school — with students moving between classrooms and teachers — would still have to follow the original guidelines, even if younger students in the building are allowed to return.

Q: When can middle and high schools reopen?

A: Secondary schools must still follow the state's original plan, which directs local districts to work with health officials and the Minnesota Department of Education to make decisions, and gives significant weight to how much the virus that causes COVID-19 is spreading in counties and local communities. Under those guidelines, nearly all counties in the state currently have virus case counts high enough for the state to recommend distance learning, so it may be some time before case numbers drop low enough for a majority of middle and high schools to be back in person.

Q: Why isn't the state letting all schools open?

A: State officials said they are prioritizing reopening schools for the youngest students first because of what they have learned about how the virus spreads in schools and among young people. Younger children who contract COVID-19 typically have less serious symptoms than older children, teens and adults and don't appear to be contributing as widely to community spread of the virus as teens and adults. Elementary students typically spend much of their time with the same group of students and teachers, limiting the potential spread of the virus in a way that's tougher for middle and high schools that move students between classes all day.

Q: Will most elementary schools open on Jan. 18?

A: Not necessarily. The decision is still up to local districts and charter schools, and leaders may opt to stay in distance learning for a variety of reasons. One of the largest considerations will be staffing; many schools have moved to distance learning because of large numbers of teachers and staff ill or quarantined — often because they were exposed to COVID-19 outside of school. As long as community spread of the virus remains high, schools will likely continue to struggle to keep buildings staffed.

Q: What additional precautions will schools have to take if they want to open?

A: Teachers and other staff members will have to wear both masks and face shields, which will be provided by the state. Schools will begin offering optional COVID-19 testing for staff members every two weeks. Students will need to wear face coverings, including for indoor physical activity, like gym class and indoor recess. Schools will also be expected to provide for physical distancing and set up clear barriers in classrooms or other spaces where teachers or educational assistants need to be close to students. Finally, any move to bring students back will have to be phased in, with only three grade levels back in the building for two weeks before additional grades can return.

Erin Golden • 612-673-4790