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Coronavirus: Gov. Walz reveals plans for 2020-21 school year

The governor issued the state's long-awaited guidance Thursday afternoon.

How school districts and charter schools start the 2020-21 school year will depend on the prevalence of COVID-19 in their local area and the safety measures they have in place.

In the state's "Safe Learning Plan for 2020-21," districts and schools will have three scenarios for restarting in September: in-person tuition, distance learning, or a hybrid version of both.

However, all schools must offer the option of distance learning for any student or family who wishes it, and educators will also be given the option to teach remotely.

"This is going to be, and I say this as someone who has been through many first days, it's going to be a first day like none we've ever seen," Walz said.

What form the restart of schools in individual districts will take will depend on how widespread COVID-19 is in the local area, which will be based on the 14-day case rate per 10,000 people.

This figure will be used by the Minnesota Departments of Health and Education to recommend a "base model" for school districts – for example a district with a low prevalence of COVID-19 could consider reopening to start with, one with a high prevalence may be distance learning only to start with.

Superintendents will take this recommendation and use it to determine in what form the district will reopen, and create a wider back-to-school plan which they will communicate to parents.

Districts and charter schools will be able to modify the level of in-person and distance learning dependin  on how cases rises or fall in the area, with the state document saying there should be efforts made to keep elementary students in school where possible, given distance learning has proven more difficult for younger children.

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School districts and charter schools can't move to looser restrictions without consulting with "local public health officials, MDH and MDE through the Regional Support Teams," but it can choose move to a more restrictive model provided it gives the education commissioner 24 hours notice.

Walz says that decisions should be based on "data-driven" local conditions rather than enacting a statewide mandate, adding: "Not all schools look the same. Not all parts of our state look the same, and we need to take those considerations in."

Walz has said the state will invest $430 million of federal funding to help prepare for the new school year, which will include providing face masks for every teacher, student, and school staff member, cover the cost of cleaning supplies, transportation, technology needs and WiFi access, and boost student, teacher and family support, including mental health access.

Furthermore, the state has a contract with a national saliva testing lab and plans to work with insurers "to ensure that all educators have access to a COVID-19 test from day one."

"This is a test that can be conducted at home and utilizes a courier for transport. This ensures that in the case where an educator has close contact with a confirmed case and experiences any challenges getting tested in their community, there is a back-up option."

Here's a look at some of the safety requirements for schools reopening for in-person or hybrid teaching.

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What about outbreaks in communities, schools?

Minnesota Department of Health officials will closely monitor any potential outbreaks, determining whether they are part of a wider spread that could have an impact on schools, or isolated outbreaks that pose less of a threat to educators and students.

When a known exposure happens within a school itself, close contacts of the individual will be required to quarantine for 14 days at home, and all are required to get tests.

A "close contact" is someone "who was within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes starting from 48 hours before illness onset until the time the patient is isolated."

The Department of Education says there may be instances where an outbreak is limited to individual classrooms or areas of the school, meaning these classes can be moved to distance learning without impacting the rest of the school.

Circumstances that could trigger a shift from in-person to hybrid learning could include a significant outbreak in the wider community, or if the number of students and staff with flu or COVID-like illnesses hits 5 percent of the total school population.

A shift back to total distance learning can happen if confirmed cases are identified in the school and contact tracing can't be completed within 24 to 36 hours.

A school can also shift to distance learning if multiple cases are identified within a short time period across multiple classrooms or activities and there is a "clear connection between cases."

The debate over the return to school 

There has been much debate about the return of in-person teaching at schools while the virus is still widespread in the U.S.

While COVID-19 has been shown so far to not be as serious among children as it is among adults, teachers are concerned about being exposed to the virus in the event that physical classes resume.

A union survey of more than 20,000 teachers in Minnesota found that just 17 percent want a return to in-person instruction, compared to 49 percent who want distance learning, and 29 percent who want a hybrid of both.

But there is also pressure for school to resume in-person due to potential pressures on parents who will otherwise have to stay home with their kids, potentially having a knock-on impact on their ability or availability to work.

This comes as the federal government ponders whether or not to extend the $600 weekly unemployment payments to help those out of work because of the pandemic, which expires on Friday.

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