School leaders in Minnesota are urging a cautious approach to the new academic year, as uncertainty remains in the wake or Thursday's back-to-school guidance issued by Gov. Tim Walz.
The guidance did not come the form of a blanket mandate, but instead is a complex series of thresholds based on local COVID data to help school districts determine how they will reopen, rules for responding to positive tests among staff or students, and safety recommendations to help reduce the possibility of COVID-19 spread in school buildings.
As such, there remains uncertainty for teachers, students, and parents as to how the new school year will look come September, with Minnesotans now having to wait for school districts to come up with their own individual plans for reopening in consultation with state health and education officials.
While there remains a strong desire particularly among some families with two working parents for school to resume, there remains reticence among school leaders, teaching unions and students about the prospect of returning to in-person classes with COVID-19 still widespread.
Under the state's guidelines, districts in counties with fewer than 10 new cases per 10,000 residents on average over a two-week period should be able to hold in-person classes. But if infection rates are higher than that, as is the case in many counties, districts would be advised to use some type of hybrid learning model. If new cases exceed 50 per 10,000 residents, districts are recommended to implement distance learning.
None of the current metrics are meant to dictate what will happen in September. But they're a starting point, Walz said.
“That was our fear, that people would look at this map and say … that’s what they’re doing,” Walz said. "As we learn more and we get better at controlling the situation, that can influence how we go about making these decisions. Nothing is cast in stone."
Commissioner of the Department of Education Mary Ricker said that while the state's departments of education and health would intervene if necessary, she doesn't expect school compliance with reopening guidelines to be an issue.
She and other speakers stressed that education professionals experience with innovative problem solving, and said she's already heard from many who have been planning for these scenarios.
"They have a deep understanding that the virus is what we are fighting here," she said.
In Walz's hometown of Mankato, Superintendent Paul Peterson said today's news was not unexpected following guidelines announced earlier in July advising schools to prepare for one of the three scenarios.
"What we were hoping to hear today is what we heard — that the guidance is rooted in science, data and well being of our kids," he said.
Likewise, Kirk Schneidawind, executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association, said nothing announced today came as a surprise to him or his colleagues. The localized approach provides an appropriate balance between the authority of state government and local school boards, which are used to acting independently, he said.
"I think this is what our districts were looking for — a menu of options to choose from based on health data and other factors," he said.
Walz's 20-year teaching career, combined with the teaching experiences of Ricker and Deputy Commissioner of Education Heather Mueller's, has earned them additional trust from some school professionals.
"They’ve lived in these spaces, and they know the impact of them, which gives people like me great confidence that they have kids at the heart of all of this," Peterson said.
Last week, Education Minnesota held a drive-by rally at the Capitol, calling for a "safe, equitable return to school." President Denise Specht said this looks like a step towards just that.
"What we appreciate about it is that there are very high standards around reopening our schools," Specht said. "What I appreciate is the science, the metrics, the high standards and the recognition that every school is different."
In addition, she said, she supports that the approach allows for input from parents and community members.
School boards are eyeing potential resignations from teachers and staff, students unenrolling from the district, and a continued financial strain as the state Legislature contends with a budget deficit next year, Schneidawind said.
Some school boards in districts closer to the Iowa and South Dakota, where restrictions are looser, have expressed concern parents may try to transfer their student across the state border, Schneidawind said. Losing as many as 10 students could mean a $100,000 loss for a district.
He said he and other professionals are interested to see if the Legislature may consider taking any measures to help shield school districts from some of that financial pain, he said.
The Mankato school district is in Blue Earth and Nicollet counties. Current coronavirus transmission rates in Blue Earth suggest a hybrid model for elementary students and distance learning for secondary students. In Nicollet, numbers point towards in-person instruction for elementary and a hybrid model for secondary students.
As Peterson and his staff prepare for a variety of scenarios, he said, he plans to engage more of the community with the fight against the virus.
"We all aspire to have as many students in our schools, working with our teachers in safe environments, as we can. But in order for that to happen, our public health numbers in Blue Earth County need to improve," he said.
During distance learning, Peterson said his district has been following the mantra: "Connections before content." Educators prioritized maintaining supportive relationships with students over high academic standards.
"We know and even our communities know ... that there were challenges with distance learning," he said, pointing towards issues with equity and access.
In a recent survey conducted by the district, most parents said the school kept up strong communication with families, Peterson said. Going forward, he said he and his teaching staff are looking to make virtual lessons more engaging.
"Our teaching staff did amazing work," he said. "If and when school districts need to move to distance learning, I'm confident it’ll be a better experience ... Those are the sorts of things, the more you do something the better you get at it. So we will have teachers this fall who have learned a lot last spring."
Educators and staff also need to prepare for the scenario of returning to the building with pandemic precautions in place.
"We know that in-person learning does not mean business as usual. We know there will be safety and health precautions in our buildings," Peterson said.
Unions are beginning to consider pandemic-related items for negotiation, Specht said. For example, teachers could bargain for more personal protective equipment or set more specific workday hours for distance learning.
"We’re in a pandemic and we cant let a calendar dictate when we should start. If we’re not ready to start, then don't start. There needs to be some flexibility and some grace in when a school district is ready to go," she said. "There’s a lot to consider: Whether the ventilation is fine, or whether we have enough cleaning supplies ordered. Do we have enough custodians on staff to clean properly? Are we able to spread out the students enough so that we can have them properly distanced? Are we going to have to look for other spaces or staggering schedules?"
For Nathaniel Genene, an incoming senior at Washburn High School and student representative on the Minneapolis School Board, distance learning sounds like the best way forward.
"I think with my friends, we would like to wait a little," he said.
He added that he and his peers were unsure how returning to school buildings during the pandemic would impact the social culture for students.
For example: how might schools enforce social distancing among students, and how might that impact student relationships? And where and how will they eat lunch?
"Our friends are like, we could be put in a pod of 30 kids and those are the only 30 kids we interact with … We’re probably going to have to eat by ourselves or eat outside. They’re like, OK, is that even worth it? Is that even really the whole school experience?" Genene said.
He noted that research shows that a large portion of the achievement gap in education is formed by third grade, suggesting that perhaps in-person instruction is a more feasible and more impactful option for younger students.
"This is probably not something high schoolers want to talk about, but we can probably get a much better distance learning experience than elementary age kids. If high schoolers get it and spread it around, that means elementary school kids can't go back. It’s a lot harder to get those early years back ... You can't replace the value," he said.