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Osterholm: School districts should decide if they return to school or not

A decision is supposed to be announced "by the week of July 27."

The July 27 deadline to announce a plan for the upcoming 2020-21 school year is just a week away, meaning this could be the week that Gov. Tim Walz and the Minnesota Department of Education announce the highly anticipated back-to-school details. 

Three scenarios are on the table: 100 percent distance learning, 100 percent in-person learning, or a hybrid of the two. It's a decision that University of Minnesota infectious disease special, Dr. Michael Osterholm, believes should be left to each school district. 

"I really strongly believe that these decisions have to be made at the school level. I think every school district in this country is in the best position to know what they can do and can't do," said Osterholm, speaking Monday morning on WCCO Radio

"I have faith in the superintendents and the teachers that they want to be in the classroom, and I think it would be a mistake to have it come down from on high about what to do. I think the school districts really are in the best position to know."

The Department of Education has maintained that a plan would be announced "by the week of July 27," but the department also made it clear that once a plan is in place, "schools may choose to implement strategies that are more restrictive than the scenario established by the state, but may not choose to implement plans for a scenario that is less restrictive."

Last week, Gov. Walz said "I know that you gotta get those kids into the classroom," adding that "the challenge here is to do it safely, to keep them in there, to keep the teachers and the support staff safe." 

Osterholm has been tracking the virus since it was discovered in China in December, from the explosive outbreaks in Wuhan, Italy, Spain and New York in February, March and April, to the ongoing epidemic that is afflicting Florida, Texas, Arizona and other parts of America's south and west. 

"As long as we have lots of transmissions in communities it's going to be hard to open schools. Fortunately here in Minnesota we are still yet further down in that list of states in terms of transmission, but I'm worried we're starting to creep up," Osterholm said. "In many states in this country it's going to be virtually impossible to physically open schools in the next two to three weeks just because of so much transmission in the community itself." 

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He said that the situations in other states will "likely" result in more distance learning, which he believes is far more difficult for children in grades K-6.

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 vary by county in Minnesota, though the counties with the most cases have tended to be in the Twin Cities metro area or in counties where outbreaks have occurred at meat processing facilities or other places of business, namely Nobles County, which saw significant caseloads in May that were connected to the JBS Pork plant. 

"I think it's going to be a difficult fall, but we have to make it a priority. We have to protect the students, we have to protect the teachers and the staff. We have to be mindful for families that the education piece is huge for many parents who work and they're planning on either child care or children in school and this has created terrible problems for them," he said. 

Here is the official wording from the Department of Education about the three contingency plans being discussed fro the 2020-21 school year. 

Scenario 1: In-person learning for all students. In this planning scenario, schools should create as much space between students and teachers as is feasible during the day, but will not be held strictly to enforcing 6 feet of social distancing during primary instructional time in the classroom. Activities and extracurricular programming should continue to follow the COVID-19 Prevention Guidance for Youth, Student, and Child Care Programs. This scenario may be implemented if state COVID-19 metrics continue to stabilize and/or improve. All requirements in this guidance apply to scenario 1.

Scenario 2: Hybrid model with strict social distancing and capacity limits. In this planning scenario, schools must limit the overall number of people in school facilities and on transportation vehicles to 50% maximum occupancy. Sufficient social distancing with at least 6 feet between people must occur at all times. If distancing cannot be achieved in a space or on a transportation vehicle, the number of occupants must be reduced. Schools must also include plans for contactless pick-up and/or delivery of meals and school materials for days that students and staff are not in the school building, as well as implementation of a school-age care program for critical workers. This scenario may be implemented if COVID-19 metrics worsen at the local, regional, or statewide level. Scenario 2 may also be implemented within a school if they experience clusters of cases within a classroom or the school. All requirements in this guidance apply to scenario 2, with additional requirements noted in the Social Distancing and Minimizing Exposure section noted for scenario 2 only.

Scenario 3: Distance learning only. This scenario may be implemented if local, regional, or statewide COVID-19 metrics worsen significantly enough to require the suspension of in-person learning. The requirements in this guidance regarding in-person protections would not apply to the general school community, as students and staff would be utilizing distance learning and would not be gathering in groups on school grounds. However, schools may be open to provide emergency child care or other functions. 

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