Minnesota state officials on Thursday unveiled a plan to reopen schools this fall that gives districts some flexibility to toggle between in-person and online learning, but reserves the right for the state to step in if the coronavirus gets out of control.

As part of the state’s 21-page Safe Learning Plan, schools in a county with a COVID-19 infection ratio of up to nine cases per 10,000 people within 14 days of the first day of school instruction would be eligible to reopen on a full-time basis. Schools in counties with an infection rate of between nine and 50 per 10,000 could try to reopen on a more limited basis for full- or part-time classes, with younger students having the highest priority to return to the school building. Schools in counties with more than 50 cases per 10,000 residents would need to have solely online classes.

The first scheduled day of instruction at Northfield is scheduled for Sept. 8. As of July 18, Rice County’s infection rate per 10,000 people was 10.2. Northfield students who live outside Rice County would still use the local data.

Northfield Public Schools Superintendent Matt Hillmann noted the district is still evaluating the governor’s plan, adding there is a good chance the learning format will need to change throughout the year as the Rice County infection rate continues to shift.

The departments of Education and Health are expected to work with school districts and local health professionals throughout the school year to help the districts decide, based on the progression of COVID-19 and the spread of the virus in specific communities, whether to transition between learning models. According to the governor’s office, the plan prioritizes keeping younger children in the classroom with the understanding that transmission is less likely for them and that in-person learning is critical for their development.

Districts will work with the state Health and Education departments to determine whether to use in-person instruction, online learning or a hybrid model. The plan requires both public schools and charter schools to allow students and teachers to choose remote learning no matter what model the district chooses.

To Hillmann, the state’s plan successfully threads the needle between the desire for local control and the need to follow the advice of health officials.

He added Gov. Tim Walz has emphasized that the daily decisions Minnesotans make in wearing face coverings and staying home when sick will decide the fall learning format, noting he believes there needs to be a shared societal responsibility in following the governor’s advice for schools to quickly reopen.

State health and education officials in June asked school districts to prepare for three scenarios: in-person learning for all students, distance learning as in the spring, or a hybrid learning scenario with social distancing and capacity limits.

To prepare for the possible scenarios, Northfield Public Schools has had three teams each consisting of 12-19 people who have been meeting several times a week and represent teachers, custodians, nurses, the District Youth Council, assistants and others. The groups have focused on instructional design, logistics and health.

Hillmann noted the district plans to share information relating to the fall learning format with families late next week and then continue communicating with them on an ongoing basis. Further consultation is also expected with Rice County Public Health on how schools can safely reopen.

“We thank people for their grace and for their patience,” he said.

Northfield Public Schools is offering an online-only option for families who don’t feel comfortable having their students return to school this fall. The program is led by district teachers, and families will be provided additional information as the development process continues. Sixth- through 12th-grade students will have a self-paced learning format through the online program with help from a licensed teacher. K-5 students will have direct instruction with self-learning opportunities. There will be video-based instruction with a licensed elementary teacher who has experience in teaching online courses.

Randolph Public Schools Superintendent Mike Kelley said those in child care and preschool and K-6 students will return to exclusively in-person instruction. Students in grades seven through nine will start the first of school with in-person instruction while ninth- through 12th-graders begin in an exclusively distance learning format for the week. From there, those two age groups will alternate in-person and distance learning formats on a weekly basis.

Kelley, who is expected to lead a Facebook Live session with parents on Monday night, anticipates that decision to free up congregate areas and allow for proper social distancing on school buses, lunches and hallways. Students will not initially receive lockers and will instead walk straight to classrooms.

“I feel extremely confident in our plan,” he said.

Randolph Public Schools recently added 11 classrooms at the elementary level and three more learning areas, a move that is expected to allow for more isolation.

To Kelley, the state’s plan makes sense to him. He emphasized the importance of developing a learning plan weeks before the school year starts to give families enough time to plan for child care and work schedules.

“It’s always good to have some data,” he said.

In terms of access to technology, Kelley said the vast majority of students have their own devices, and the district will supply them for those who don’t.

State leaders: Safety is a top priority

In announcing the plan, Walz acknowledged the importance of schools and the value of in-person learning, but said the state’s top priority is safety.

“As a classroom teacher for more than 20 years and a parent of a child in public schools, I am committed to providing a world-class education to our students while keeping them and their teachers safe,” Walz said. “With this approach, we are pairing the knowledge and data from our Departments of Health and Education with the expertise of our local school districts to make the best decisions for our students across the state.”

Republicans and some school officials had pressed Walz to leave reopening plans up to individual districts, arguing that local administrators know best how to protect students.

The guidance comes as coronavirus cases have been moving upward in some parts of the state. Minnesota reported 745 new cases on Thursday — slightly higher than the seven-day average — and five new deaths. State officials have warned of rising hospitalizations, but that number dipped slightly in Thursday’s data.

President Donald Trump has pressed schools nationwide to open for in-person learning, but many teachers have expressed fears of doing so. Education Minnesota, the state teachers’ union, last week released a survey with just one in five teachers supporting in-person learning.

Administrators for Minneapolis Public Schools, one of the largest districts in the state, said Tuesday they plan to start the school year Sept. 8 with distance learning. Their plan would require remote learning as the primary method of instruction, though buildings would remain open for tutoring, technology and mental health support for students and families.

Also on Thursday, Walz announced an additional $250 million of funding to provide face coverings for students, educators and staff members. The funding will also allow for the deployment of a COVID-19 testing plan for educators and staff members, help to cover costs for cleaning supplies, transportation, technology needs and Wi-Fi access; and to offer digital navigation training, tutors, translation services, mental health support and professional development.

Walz ordered Minnesota public and charter schools to close and switch to distance learning in mid-March as COVID-19 cases began to appear in the state, affecting nearly 900,000 students and their families. As the number of coronavirus cases in Minnesota grew, the governor extended the closure through the school year and prohibited large-scale high school and college graduation ceremonies.

Reach Associate Editor Sam Wilmes at 507-645-1115. © Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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