Owatonna High School 12th grader Lane Versteeg shared his school experience during the COVID-19 pandemic with the state during Gov. Tim Walz’s press conference on Wednesday.
Versteeg spoke during the press conference after Walz announced a new process to get students back into the classroom. Minnesota school districts will be able to reopen their middle and high school buildings to students starting Feb. 22, Walz said during Wednesday’s press conference.
Students in those schools would be allowed to 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.
“It’s time to get our students back in school, and we can do that now safely,” Walz said, 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.”
Following the announcement, Versteeg took the stage to share his story. Last spring, schools across the state leapt into emergency distance learning. Versteeg finished up his junior year online, hopeful that things would return to normal by the following academic year.
“There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that my classmates and I would be walking the halls of our high school together this fall,” he said.
Despite the chaotic ending to his junior year and abrupt cancellation of activities, he remained hopeful.
“As COVID became more and more real, my expected return to school grew farther and farther away. By last year September, I had all but given up on my senior year, I had accepted it as a loss,” he said.
Versteeg expressed gratitude for the hard work teachers have put in to make distance and hybrid learning work, but he noted that nothing could replace the memories made with classmates and friends during high school. As he entered his senior year, he longed for one more bus ride with his teammates, one more concert performance and even the chance to experience his first prom.
According to the Governor’s Office, nearly 25% of teachers have been vaccinated so far and school staff next week will have access to more than 18,000 vaccine doses at state vaccine sites. These vaccines continue to be distributed across the state, with the goal of vaccinating the majority of educators by March 8, making the end of the pandemic feel closer than ever before.
“I’m reminded of the excitement I was experiencing 12 months ago. With the governor’s new direction, I’m eager for the opportunity to share the walls of my high school with my classmates one last time. And although the end of my senior year may not be as traditional as I had hoped, I know that my grade will get to experience it in the most important way possible ... together,” Versteeg said.
As schools begin to open across the state, full-time distancing learning will still be available for families who do not feel comfortable sending their kids to school.
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.
According to the Minnesota Department of Health, Steele County’s most recent 14-day COVID-19 case rate is 29.17 per 10,000 residents. Rice County is at 43.34.
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 they 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% of Minnesota districts are participating in the testing program.
Minnesota Public Radio News contributed to this report.