COVID school

Gov. Tim Walz is expected to release updated guidelines Wednesday on opening secondary schools for in-person learning. (Metro Creative Images)

Minnesota school districts will be able to reopen their middle and high school buildings to students starting Feb. 22 , Gov. Tim Walz said Wednesday.

Students in those schools can return to classrooms for hybrid or in-person learning with the expectation that all schools will offer some form of in-person learning by March 8, officials said. Distance learning options would be available for students uncomfortable about returning.

Schools will still be required to stay vigilant against the disease’s spread, requiring masking and social distancing for students and staff while indoors.

“It’s time to get our students back in school, and we can do that now safely,” Walz said during a noon briefing, citing progress on vaccinations along with the state’s improving pandemic metrics. “We’re on our way to ending the pandemic. We’re beating this thing.”

According to his office, nearly 25 percent of teachers have been at least partially vaccinated so far and school staff next week will have access to more than 18,000 vaccine doses at state vaccine sites. Walz predicted “the bulk of our educators” would be vaccinated by March 8.

Pressed by reporters about whether he would force school districts to reopen buildings by March 8, the governor said the plan depended on partnerships with local officials and that the state would “cross each of those bridges when they come.”

The governor’s plan also did not offer any additional guidance on events tied to schools, such as proms or prep sports.

The updated rules come days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released COVID-19 protocols for schools, and nearly two months after Walz put out an amended road map to get the state’s youngest learners back to in-person classes.

Last week, Walz said he wanted all Minnesota students back in classrooms as soon as possible, but said he would not set a date requiring the return of in-person learning and would work closely with local school leaders.

Under current state guidance, middle and high school leaders must consult with local public health officials on county case rates of COVID-19 before choosing an in-person, distance or hybrid learning scenario for their students.

State health officials say they haven’t found any evidence yet of widespread transmission of COVID-19 in the schools in the state that are teaching in-person.

Public elementary schools are no longer required to consult with local health officials or use county case rate data before deciding whether or not to offer an in-person option for their students but must follow safety precautions.

New federal guidelines also instruct school leaders to look at regional COVID-19 spread when determining whether to open schools for in-person learning.

The CDC recommends layering safety protocols such as masking, social distancing, hand-washing and ventilation. It also urges middle and high schools in communities where viral transmission is high to remain in distance learning unless mitigation measures are “strictly” implemented.

In recent weeks, Walz has prioritized school staff for COVID-19 vaccinations; Minnesota is just one of 28 states to do so. He has also directed schools to offer on-site COVID-19 testing for their staff. According to Walz spokesperson Teddy Tschann, 96 percent of Minnesota districts are participating in the testing program.

Republican state lawmakers have urged Walz to ease up on restrictions and allow more schools to reopen. Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, in an emailed statement threw his support behind a bill seeking to limit Walz’s peacetime emergency authority to close schools.

“I am glad the governor finally seems to be recognizing the importance of getting kids back into the classrooms. It is long overdue. Unfortunately, Gov. Walz’s mismanagement of COVID and schools is a big reason that students are struggling. We have known for a long time now that schools can safely reopen; the evidence is overwhelming. It’s all the more reason we need Senate File 2, which would restore local school officials with the authority to determine their own reopening policies.”

Minnesota school administrative leaders have said the bill is not necessary.

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