Waseca Junior-High School

Waseca Public Schools will use a hybrid model for the 2020-21 school year following Gov. Tim Walz's press conference July 30. The school district has been preparing for different scenarios for the school year following the end of the 2020 school year. (County News file photo)

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — 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.

Gov. Tim Walz acknowledged the importance of schools and the value of in-person learning, but said the state's top priority is safety. Districts will work with the state Health and Education departments to determine whether to use in-person instruction, online learning or a hybrid model, and will have the ability to become more or less restrictive depending on the virus.

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.

Waseca County schools will use a hybrid model for schools based on a map from the Minnesota Department of Health. The classification is based on county-level case rates per 10,000 residents as of July 30.

The Waseca school board met July 23 to go through some of the options the district has planned for in the 2020-21 school year. 

Waseca Superintendent Eric Hudspith said that the meeting the district knows how to plan for in-school instruction but things change under different scenarios.

“What we don’t know is how facility areas, transportation, health and safety, and how to keep kids spaced out and social distanced throughout the course of the day will look,” he said.

Most of the district's attention has been spent looking at the hybrid model because of the varying ways in which it could look.

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.

State health and education officials last month 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.

President Donald Trump has pressed schools nationwide to open for in-person learning, and as 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.

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.

Mohamed Ibrahim is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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