Winona State University quarantined itself for two weeks starting Tuesday amid an increasing spread of the coronavirus on the southeastern Minnesota campus, while most of the state's elementary and secondary schools kicked off a school year that will test whether their preparations to teach amid the pandemic will pay off.
The day after Labor Day marks the traditional return to school for most Minnesota school districts, though some started earlier. State Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker acknowledged at a briefing for reporters that there was “nothing traditional about this school year.” But she expressed confidence that the months of preparations by faculty and staff will keep schools “as safe as possible.”
Ricker didn't have complete figures on all 576 school districts and charter schools statewide. But with 426 districts and charter schools reporting, she said, 267 of them opened using a hybrid of in-person and distance learning, or 63%; while 53 of them, or 12%, were using only distance learning; and 106, or 25%, were offering only in-person learning.
The state’s colleges and universities have been seeing a lot of coronavirus spread already, Kris Ehresman, the infectious disease director at the Minnesota Department of Health, said at the briefing.
Besides Winona State, she cited Concordia-Moorhead and Minnesota State-Moorhead as collectively having a large number of cases. Minnesota State-Mankato has stabilized, she said, “but we’ll see what comes after the holiday weekend.”
Winona State said its self-imposed quarantine will reduce the number of people physically present on campus for the next two weeks. Classes taught face-to-face will either shift entirely online or, if absolutely necessary, continue in-person with increased precautions. Employees who don't need to be physically present on campus will shift to remote work.
“The university is not currently aware of any serious illness related to COVID-19 within the WSU community,” Winona State President Scott R. Olson said in a statement. “However, we are seeing an increase in asymptomatic transmission, and we have a responsibility to our students, our employees, and to our community to respond accordingly. We recognize that the recent increase in cases is not only impacting our campus, but the entire Winona community.”
Winona County’s confirmed case count has more than doubled in recent weeks and stood at 622 on Tuesday, according to state figures.
Winona State University's own COVID-19 dashboard listed 97 confirmed cases within school community members, though not all of them had been physically president on campus, with 148 people isolating themselves on and off campus because they had tested positive or shown symptoms, and 122 people in quarantine because they might have been exposed.
“It's really going to be up to the students as to whether or not we're going to continue to see transmission," Ehresmann said about college spread in general. "The transmission that we are seeing is really focused on social activities outside of the learning setting and not so much based on interaction on campus."
Classes will start later this month at the Twin Cities, Duluth and Rochester campuses of the separate University of Minnesota system, which decided to delay move-ins and in-person classes to allow more time for preparations to limit the spread of the virus.
The department on Tuesday reported two new COVID-19 deaths, with 387 newly confirmed coronavirus cases based on a low level of testing over the holiday weekend.