Minnesota's youngest learners can start returning to the classroom regardless of county COVID-19 case rates.
Gov. Tim Walz's latest executive order aims to prioritize elementary school students by allowing schools to choose whether they want to move to in-person or hybrid learning starting Jan. 18, so long as they implement all required health and safety measures.
Previously, schools based this decision on county COVID-19 case rates, which as of late has forced most schools to be 100% distance learning.
Education Minnesota, the state's teacher's union, said Wednesday it is supportive of the governor's decision to allow elementary schools to reopen, so long as safety rules are enforced and the spread of the virus continues to slow.
“For months now, educators have said they wanted to get back into their classrooms with their students, but only when it’s safe for everyone to do so,” Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said in a statement Wednesday.
“If districts meet the new high bar for safety for students and staff, and there are swift, serious consequences for the few employers who might cut corners, this plan could get more buildings open for the littlest learners.”
The new guidance for elementary schools
The state updated its Safe Learning Plan to include additional mitigation strategies that all schools – elementary, middle and high school – must adhere to if they plan to offer in-person or hybrid learning starting Jan. 18.
Those strategies include requiring all staff to wear a face mask and a face shield together at all times and executing a COVID-19 testing program where all school staff members are tested every other week beginning Jan. 4 or whenever they return to in-person teaching after that date. (The state will provide the saliva testing kits and provide training on how to use them).
The new plan also requires a rolling start so not all grade levels come back to the building at the same time. Meanwhile, elementary and early learning schools are required to keep students in the classroom for the entire school day, except for outdoor recess and physical education classes. This means meals will be served in the classroom and teachers may have to rotate classrooms if they teach other subjects.
It is also recommended to install a clear barrier when educators cannot maintain a six-foot distance between students.
Although elementary schools can start reopening in mid-January, Specht said parents shouldn't expect all schools to start in-person learning then because it can take time to make buildings safe and a school can't reopen if too many staff are out sick or quarantining due to exposure to COVID-19.
“We’ve learned that schools aren’t islands and educators aren’t magically immune to what’s happening in their neighborhoods,” Specht said. “This virus spreads everywhere. We’re all in this together. What might look like individual decisions about masks, social contact and family gatherings over the holidays actually affect us all.
"Please, wear your mask, keep your distance and stay home when you can," Specht added. "If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for your local students and their educators.”
The Minnesota Department of Education's website has the latest updates to the Safe Learning Plan.