Credit: Evan Frost | MPR News 2020

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Halfway through the school year, many teachers in the Twin Cities still haven’t seen their remote students’ faces. Students are absent and failing courses at much higher rates. Parents have rearranged their lives to help students at home if they can, and find someone else to watch them if they can’t.

And with the pandemic still raging, there seemed to be no end in sight. Parents and students worried they wouldn’t see the inside of a classroom until next year. 

So it came as a surprise to many when Governor Tim Walz announced that all elementary schools could reopen. It was a reversal from his administration’s previous guidance that linked school opening decisions to county case rates. Minneapolis and St. Paul districts quickly announced doors would open in February for in-person learning for pre-kindergarten through fifth grade students. Students can also choose to continue distance learning.

The unexpected change in the learning plan has elicited strong emotions from families and teachers: relief, anger, confusion, joy, and fear. It has also elicited a number of questions. Why now? Is it really safe to go back? Will my child have the same teacher? What’s going on with the new variant?

The most pressing question for many parents: How should our family decide between a return to the classroom and remote learning?

We rounded up some answers to frequently asked questions about the change in school plans, the current science on COVID-19 and kids, and the plans for safer classrooms.

How have the learning plans changed in Minneapolis and St. Paul Public Schools?

In February, both Minneapolis and St. Paul Public Schools will open elementary schools for full-time in-person learning. SPPS elementary schools will open for grades pre-K–2 on February 1. Minneapolis elementary schools will open for pre-K and kindergarten students on February 8, first and second grades on February 10, and grades 3–5 on February 22. 

Elementary students will also have the option to continue distance learning. Students in grades 6–12 will continue distance learning. No hybrid option will be available for either district.

Wasn’t the plan to make gradual changes based on county case counts? What happened?

On December 16, Governor Tim Walz announced a change to the state’s school plan, allowing elementary schools to return in January to full in-person learning. Middle and high schools will still be subject to the original plan, which allows for different learning models based on current COVID-19 cases in each county.

After Walz’s announcement, St. Paul Public Schools announced it would reopen elementary schools for in-person instruction. Minneapolis Public Schools soon followed.

Why did the rules change? 

Both health and educational considerations led to the revision. An increasing number of studies show that young children are less likely to get seriously ill from COVID-19 or to transmit the virus to others. Many young children also struggle with remote learning.

“It’s always been a priority for us to bring students back into the classrooms, especially younger learners and students who are struggling academically,” said Ashleigh Norris, a spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Education. Ten months into the pandemic, schools have also learned from other sectors, including food and childcare, she said.

Joe Gothard, superintendent of St. Paul Public Schools, pointed to the metro’s falling COVID-19 case rate and noted that other metro schools have opened successfully with health precautions in place. He also expressed concern about students struggling and failing in distance learning.

In Minneapolis, superintendent Ed Graff explained that Walz made the decision in consultation with many experts. 

“Many of our youngest learners are suffering in distance learning,” he said before a January 12 school board meeting. “Not just academically, but socially and emotionally as well. And there are long-term consequences for them should they not have an opportunity to choose an in-person learning option.”

Attendance has dropped along with math and some reading proficiency scores, he said. And these declines appear worse for children of color. The attendance loss is greatest for Black and American Indian students, he said.

“I also believe that given enough information, parents can make the choice they believe is best for their family,” he said. “It is paternalistic to think we should decide everything for families or that we know what’s best for poor children or children of color—as if their parents and guardians have no agency.”

What choices will parents have for our kids? When will we have to make a decision? 

In St. Paul, the deadline to choose in-person or distance learning was January 11. Families who chose in-person learning but decide they would prefer to switch back to distance learning can do so easily. If you chose distance learning and want to switch to in-person, that’s a little trickier. Students may be put on a wait list.

In Minneapolis, families have until January 22 to decide. If they make no decision, they will be assigned by default to in-person learning. That’s because it’s easier to switch from in-person to distance learning. Switching into in-person learning is more complicated, because schools will need to arrange logistics like transportation and meals. 

Still, Minneapolis students can switch between the two modes at any point. Changing to distance learning can happen quickly, while switching to in-person instruction can take up to two weeks.

What do Minnesota public health experts, like local celebrity epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, say?

Minnesota’s best-known epidemiologist is Dr. Michael Osterholm, the director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. Osterholm has advised both Governor Tim Walz and President-elect Joe Biden on their COVID-19 response plans. 

He said in a December 10 episode of his podcast that he had come to believe it was safe to open schools for children aged 5–9. Numerous studies have shown that young children transmit the virus to others much less than adults do, he explained.

Data also indicate that the vast majority of teachers and staff who contract the virus seem to contract the virus in the community, not in the classroom.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that I think five- to nine-year-olds can clearly be in a classroom right now with the appropriate prevention practices in place,” Osterholm said. “Teachers can safely teach. And basically we can go on with that. And we will have to reassess that over time.”

Kids over 10 spread the virus more easily, especially when community spread is high. ”When the house is on fire,” he said, referring to high community spread, “they’re going to transmit it in the community.”

What else does the current science say about reopening schools?

A scientific consensus, including a trio of recent studies, is emerging that opening schools for the youngest learners does not impact community spread–if community transmission is low enough. But there’s no consensus on what an acceptable level of community transmission would be, and it’s not easy to extrapolate their results to Minnesota elementary schools. 

Looking for extra credit? Here’s what the studies actually say.

A study looking at schools in Michigan and Washington showed that schools in areas with low community transmission did not increase the spread of the virus. But experts found vastly different results in Michigan and in Washington for the community case rate that fueled school spread. And it’s hard to extrapolate this data to Minnesota, which may be identifying more cases because of our successful testing regimen. This study also wasn’t specific to elementary schools.

A different study examined hospitalization rates as a more reliable measure than infection rates. While testing varies greatly across communities, hospitalizations represent a consistent indicator of serious illness. This study showed that when hospitalizations are already high in the community—36–44 per 100,000 people—reopening schools can lead to even more COVID-19 hospitalizations. The study provides a searchable spreadsheet of county hospitalization rates.

But relying on this calculation is not a silver bullet. For one thing, as the scientists state in a disclaimer, the data contain errors. Although Hennepin and Ramsey Counties have nearly identical infection rates, the spreadsheet indicates implausibly different hospitalization rates; some kind of error seems likely. The study authors caution they are not making recommendations about what schools should do.

The only study of the three to differentiate by age group found that in Florida, infections of COVID-19 in children increased when school buildings reopened. But this effect was much less pronounced among kids aged 6–13 than in high school students.

However, none of these studies takes into account the new, more contagious coronavirus variant.

What do we know now about the risk of the virus to kids?

Studies increasingly show young children are much less likely to become ill than adults or even adolescents.

And serious complications for children are rare. Children 19 and under have been hospitalized at a tenth of the rate of adults over 20. No COVID-19 deaths have been reported in the state for youth aged 1–19. 

What complications do occur, however, are more likely for children of color. One of those serious complications is multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children. Health officials reported Thursday that while this complication is rare, Minnesota is seeing more cases now than in the fall. 

A total of 59 cases have been reported in Minnesota between May and January 15. More than 60 percent of the children who have contracted this syndrome in Minnesota are Black or Latino.

Even if kids aren’t likely to get seriously ill, can they spread the virus to their parents or teachers?

A growing number of studies shows that young kids can indeed spread the virus, but not as easily as adults. Prepubescent children in particular are much less likely to spread the virus than adults. Around the age of 10 to 12, children become more likely to transmit the virus.

So when do teachers and school staff get vaccinated?

As frontline essential workers, Minnesota teachers and school staff should go in vaccination group 1B: the second priority group (after front-line health care workers and long-term care residents). Some school staff—nurses, COVID-19 testing coordinators, and certain special education staff who perform medical-like services—may be in 1A. The vaccine rollout has so far been slower than state officials hoped, and they say it will take until the end of January to complete phase 1A. 

Kris Ehresmann, MDH’s infectious disease director, told MinnPost in December that vaccinations for teachers and other school staff would likely begin in February or March. On Tuesday, a spokesperson for MDH told Sahan Journal that the timeline hasn’t changed. That means in a best-case scenario, some teachers and school staff would be getting their first vaccine dose right around the time that Minneapolis and St. Paul districts begin welcoming back elementary students.

But there are still a lot of unknowns about the vaccination rollout, including when more vaccines will become available and how the incoming Biden administration might shift the vaccine distribution timeline.

The vaccination process requires two doses several weeks apart–three weeks after the first jab for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, four weeks later for Moderna and AstraZeneca. Full protection takes effect two weeks after the second dose.

How will teachers, school staff, and students be protected inside school buildings?

Governor Walz’s plan comes with some new protective measures for teachers and school staff. Schools must provide free saliva tests for teachers to use every two weeks. Educators can also choose to get tested more often at community testing sites. Walz’s plan strongly recommends that districts require teachers to wear both a face mask and a face shield. It also recommends clear barriers if teachers are unable to stay six feet from students.

Both Minneapolis and St. Paul schools will set up social distancing markers with an aim to keep students 3 feet apart from each other and 6 feet apart from adults. Masks will be mandatory for students unless they are eating or drinking. Other exceptions will apply for some students with special needs. 

Both districts are implementing improved air filtration and adding plexiglass barriers. On buses, students will maintain social distancing, and staff will frequently sanitize high-touch surfaces. In addition to face shields and masks, staff will have access to gloves and gowns. There will also be increased cleaning and sanitizing throughout the buildings.

Why would parents choose to send kids back into classrooms before the virus has been fully tamed? 

Remote learning seems to be yielding poor results for many students, especially for students of color. For middle and high school students, failing grades are way up in Minneapolis and St. Paul, especially among students of color. Minneapolis superintendent Ed Graff noted that math proficiency has dropped across the board, especially for students of color, and reading proficiency scores have shown some declines as well. 

And it’s not just academic results that are suffering. Experts, parents, and educators have expressed deep concerns about students’ mental health, food access, and housing stability. They’ve also voiced concerns that with children stuck at home and no teachers to check on them in person, child abuse may be going unreported.

So why don’t all parents want their kids back in school buildings ASAP?

The health risks from COVID-19 are real. And the consequences have fallen disproportionately on people of color, who have gotten sick and died at higher rates than white people. There are a lot of reasons for this, but it boils down to systemic racism. 

People of color are more likely to work “essential” jobs in industries like meatpacking, factories, delivery driving, and transit. These employees can’t work from home and may operate in close quarters with infected people. And due to long-standing medical and environmental racism, people in these communities are also more likely to have existing health risks that can make COVID-19 worse.

In a Minnesota Department of Education survey this summer, parents of color were less likely to say they would send their children back to in-person learning. Data from St. Paul Public Schools also show some racial differences in registration choice, but the divide has shrunk from the summer. 

In St. Paul, data show that parents of white children are sending their children back to in-person learning at a slightly higher rate than parents of Black, Hispanic, American Indian, and multiracial students. Asian students, many of whom are Hmong and Karen, chose in-person learning at a much lower rate than any other group, opting for distance learning at nearly twice the rate of white students.

Are the teachers unions on board with the return to in-person learning? 

No. Both the Minneapolis and St. Paul teachers unions are calling on their districts to delay the return to school buildings until teachers and school staff have the opportunity to be fully vaccinated. They also want district leadership to negotiate a safe return plan with them. 

“There is zero confidence in this plan in our executive board,” Nick Faber, president of the St. Paul Federation of Educators, told the crowd Tuesday at a car rally to delay the return.

A spokesperson for SPPS said the district is currently negotiating with the union for a return to in-person learning.

The St. Paul Federation of Educators is circulating a petition calling for a delay until teachers are vaccinated. The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Education Support Professionals also has a petition demanding both a delay and a bargaining agreement to put certain safety measures in place, including class-size caps, 6-foot social distancing, and the option to get both doses of the vaccine before any return. 

Can teachers choose to work remotely?

Teachers who are at higher risk for COVID-19 complications or have a member of their household who is at risk can request an accommodation to work from home. The district “must allow them to work from home to the extent possible,” according to the state’s Safe Learning Plan.

Isn’t there a new, more contagious variant of COVID-19 in Minnesota now? Should that change how we think about schools reopening? 

The new variant of COVID-19, first identified in Great Britain, so far does not appear to cause greater risk of serious illness or death. But it does seem to be significantly more transmissible. That means any infected person could potentially transmit the virus to more people than they would with the previous strain. Public health experts believe this could fuel exponential case growth and lead to more superspreader events. 

On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a new report warning that the new strain could lead to huge COVID-19 spikes in coming weeks and become the country’s dominant COVID-19 strain by March—sooner if the vaccine rollout continues to be slow.

A new contact-tracing study shows that with this strain, too, children transmit the virus at about half the rate of adults. Still, the strain is estimated to be about 50 percent more contagious for both age groups.  

Minnesota reported its first cases of the new variant on January 9. State and federal health authorities stress the importance of doubling down on wearing masks and social distancing as precautions that can thwart both strains. Initial studies show that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is effective against the new variant. Experts are hopeful the Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines will work against it, too.

What happens if I choose distance learning for my kid? Do they videoconference into the classroom with in-person students,  or get assigned somewhere else?

MPS will place students in either a school classroom or a separate virtual classroom. A spokesperson for SPPS declined to answer, citing ongoing negotiations with the teachers union.

Will my kids have the same teacher in the classroom that they had in distance learning?

Whether a student chooses in-person or distance learning, there’s no guarantee she will continue with her same teacher. Classroom assignments and decisions will be made after students have submitted their preferences, staff return, and registration numbers become clearer. Teachers’ preferences and needs within the school will play a role, too.

“The hope is for students to be able to remain with their current teachers,” said Dirk Tedmon, media relations coordinator for Minneapolis Public Schools. “The district recognizes that that’s important and those connections are important, especially this year with everything that’s happening both inside and outside of education.”

St. Paul students may also find themselves with different teachers, regardless of learning modality. According to the district’s reopening webpage, for both in-person and online learning, “students will likely experience a change in who their teacher is.” 

How is this working in other states and countries? Hasn’t someone somewhere figured out how to get this right?

It’s difficult to compare across states and countries that opened with different infection rates, different mitigation measures within schools, and different policy solutions to encourage people to stay home. Where schools have opened successfully, experts often point to their mitigation strategies: masks, distancing, hand hygiene, and ventilation (such as open windows). Most of those are part of the reopening plan in Minnesota, though not every classroom has windows that open.

In Britain, schools employ very few mitigation measures—British schoolchildren do not even wear masks in class—which, experts say, likely fueled the spread of the variant.

In Minnesota, some schools have opened successfully for hybrid or in-person learning. But they’ve at times had to shut down classrooms or entire schools to quarantine after a COVID-19 exposure.

This fall, New York City’s plan to reopen schools, like Minnesota’s, depended on staying below a certain case number. With mitigation measures like distancing and improved ventilation, schools stayed open through the fall, though individual schools closed periodically when multiple cases appeared in a building. The district saw no major outbreaks, and its efforts were hailed as successful. But New York closed schools briefly in November when cases started to spike.

Now, New York City, like Minnesota, is no longer using the low positivity rate as a threshold for elementary schools. But at the beginning of January, more than 100 schools closed temporarily due to COVID-19 cases.

Wait—can we go back for a second: Will families be able to change their choice of in-person vs. remote learning later on? 

Yes, but it’s easier to switch out of in-person learning than to switch into it. 

So how should I decide?

It’s only your children’s education, and the health of your family and community at stake. Don’t sweat it! But seriously: Remember that you can change your mind at any point. Make an informed decision. And if you’re the kind of person who finds lists helpful in making big decisions, the CDC has compiled a helpful checklist for you.    

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.