COVID has everyone pondering where, and how, to start school

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By Lee Egerstrom

Most Minnesota public school districts have explained to parents and students how they plan to start the new school year in September but the coronavirus pandemic has some schools going right down to the wire before making a final call.

On top of this uncertainty, startup plans may prove only temporary. Under state health guidelines, school schedules could be changed on the fly if COVID-19 infections start to rise in different counties.

The following is background on why parents and students should keep a close eye on school district and specific school news announcements in the next two weeks before most Minnesota schools are set to resume classes.

As of July 30, state officials have given local school boards the options of restarting schools with in-person classes, in hybrid classes with some in-class and distant learning classes, or through distance learning – or online and other electronic away-from-school settings.

Under guidelines spelled out in Gov. Tim Walz’s and state officials’ Safe Learning Plan, county infectious rates per capita should guide school officials in determining how and where learning may begin.

As of Aug. 20, all schools in Minnesota were eligible to reopen with at least 50 percent capacity based on current COVID infection data. That includes schools in and around Minnesota’s 11 Native American reservation communities.

For school officials, however, these numbers are mere guidance on what numbers may be manageable for health safety. School space, staffing needs and other variables will influence any last-minute school decisions.

Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools, where a majority of urban Native American students attend school, have both chosen to start the year with distance learning. This was largely driven by space needs for appropriate distancing for students, faculty and staff personnel although both large districts intend to phase in part-time, in-person (hybrid model) classes during the coming year.

Several other large metro area school districts have done the same. Some that have classroom space available for social distancing are planning to start with part-time hybrid models with students taking some classes with in-person learning and some online.
Priority planning for in-person classes is directed at elementary age students.

Large Bloomington and Roseville school districts were planning to start the school year with hybrid plans but joined Minneapolis and St. Paul districts in the last few days and now plan to start the school year with distance learning classes.

Private schools are not as directed by state guidelines and a majority appear to be reopening with appropriate space distances for classroom attendance and for faculty and staff.

Published news reports from the Aug. 20 state COVID-19 data acknowledged a change in county-level infection rates could force additional districts to shift from in-person to distance learning after the school year begins.

At this point, however, 10 of Minnesota’s 87 counties have infection rates of 20-30 new cases per 10,000 population that means students could return to classes part-time under hybrid school plans.

In addition, 26 counties had from 10 to 20 new cases suggesting elementary schools can reopen with middle and high schools operating on a part-time hybrid system for proper social distancing. And 51 counties have new infection rates of 10 or fewer cases, suggesting their schools can reopen as normal with proper precautions.

All this depends on whether the schools can provide proper social distancing and implement other health safety measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

The Minnesota Department of Health will update COVID infestations by counties again on Thursday, Aug. 26. That might have some school districts readjusting last minute school opening plans.

Families with school-age children should carefully monitor school and school district information for school plans. They could change abruptly in the next two weeks.

In addition, the Minnesota Departments of Health and Education have sites updated most days with relevant COVID-19 and school information and planning guides at these sites:
https://www.health.state.mn.us/diseases/coronavirus/schools/index.html
https://www.health.state.mn/diseases/coronavirus/schools.k12planguide.pdf
https://mn.gov/covid19/for-minnesotans/safe-learning-plan/overview.jsp
https://education.mn.gov/MDE/dse/health/covid19