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Education Minnesota worried 'dial back' could hinder school reopening; MDH advises caution

While the state is loosening restrictions for social activities, the MDH continues to stress that "each and every Minnesotan" needs to help contain the spread as schools reopen.
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A student masked up for in-person learning. 

As statewide activity restrictions loosen, Education Minnesota is urging Minnesotans to continue following pandemic safety measures as schools eye a possible return for elementary students beginning Jan. 18.  

The organization, which represents educators' unions statewide, issued a press release Wednesday expressing concern over Gov. Walz's latest "dial back" of restrictions, which include reopening bars, restaurants and gyms at limited capacity beginning Monday. 

“Educators want to be back in their buildings with their students when conditions are safe and sustainable,” Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said in a statement. “But right now, we’re growing concerned that a post-holiday spike of infections fueled by the new COVID-19 variant and transmission in bars, restaurants and gyms will come together with delays in testing and vaccinations to make reopening school buildings impossible in many communities.” 

The Minnesota Department of Health says it's too soon to say whether there will be a spike following the December holidays, and that there is no evidence at this time that the UK varient is contributing to increased spread in Minnesota, according to spokesperson Doug Schultz. 

"Just as we did not see a large post-Thanksgiving spike in cases, we are hopeful that Minnesotans adhered to our recommendations over the December holidays, but we won’t know for sure for a couple weeks yet," Schultz said in a statement.  

After a massive surge in coronavirus cases statewide beginning in early November, most schools were forced to close based on the rate of spread in each respective county. 

In December, Walz updated the state's Safe Learning Plan to no longer include the rate of spread by county part of the criteria for when elementary schools can reopen. Instead, elementary schools can choose to reopen beginning Jan. 18 if they adhere to specific standards. These include: 

  • Providing COVID-19 testing for staff every other week
  • Staff must not only wear a mask, but also a face shield, which will be provided by the government
  • Enforcing three or more feet of physical distancing within the building 
  • Requiring masks for physical activities, like gym class and indoor recess

Among the latest school districts to announce their reopening plans is Minneapolis Public Schools, which announced Friday it intends to reopen its elementary schools for in-person learning on Feb. 8.

These new safety rules apply to middle and high schools as well, but these levels of school are still subject to Walz's original plan, and can only open if the rate of spread in the county is low enough. 

Currently, a little less than half of districts and charter schools teaching Early Childhood Special Education, Pre-K, and/or K-5 are in distance-learning mode, according to the Minnesota Department of Education. The remaining schools are using either a hybrid method for these grades or a "combination" of methods according to grade level. For example, some schools might have different learning models for K-2 students than 3rd through 5th graders. 

Middle schools and high schools have similar numbers: 48 percent of districts and charter schools are using distance-learning for these groups.

Whether these schools will be able to reopen in the coming weeks depends on the spread in those counties.

"We need each and every Minnesotan to help protect our progress. We all have to make good decisions every day about our own risk, our risk to others, and the simple things we can do to slow the spread of the virus. This individual responsibility will be a huge factor in how the next weeks and months play out," Schultz said. 

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Since March, schools and communities have struggled to perfect the distance learning method, with widespread stress among parents left without childcare and failing grades among high schools. School staff are left facing much of the pressure, and an Education Minnesota survey in October showed that about a third of its members were considering leaving the profession. 

“Educators and nearly everyone else in Minnesota want our state’s children back in the classroom with their friends, but only when it’s safe,” Specht said in the statement Wednesday. “One of the hard lessons we’ve all learned from this pandemic is that you can’t operate schools when the virus is spreading too fast through the community because too many educators get sick or go into quarantine. Wearing masks, washing hands, keeping your distance — these are the choices that will decide when our school buildings reopen and stay open.” 

Though elementary schools are permitted to reopen for in-person learning with the new safety measures beginning Jan. 18, they are not required to, and are required to use a rolling start. For example, St. Paul Public Schools is currently planning to reopen Feb. 1 for pre-kindergarten through second grade students, and then will begin reopening for older grade levels. Families can choose between sending their students to school or distance learning, with no hybrid option, according to the website. 

Wednesday, Specht also called for teachers to be prioritized for vaccinations in the next phase, and asked for Gov. Walz to renew language in his 2020 Executive Orders that allowed educators to not use sick leave when quarantining after being exposed to the virus at school.

As of Thursday, there have been 11,652 coronavirus cases associated with schools, according to MDH

Chris Williams, a spokesperson for Education Minnesota, said this is likely an undercount, citing the refusal of some parents to test symptomatic students last spring. "It's impossible to know how many students were involved," he added. 

Minnesota is currently on phase 1A of its vaccination rollout, and teachers are set to receive vaccinations under the next phase, 1B, which is likely to begin in February,  Schulz said. 

In mid-November, as cases began to skyrocket, Specht told Bring Me The News that she's seen some school boards ignoring official guidance and lagging when it's time to move back to distance learning.

"There will be consequences at the ballot box for elected officials who put wishful thinking ahead of hard science and make decisions that put their employees, students and communities at unnecessary risk," Specht said. "By ignoring the warnings and denying the math, these elected officials are increasing the chances that their local hospitals will be overwhelmed and their neighbors who are sick won’t get the treatment they need."

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