Does this costume count as a COVID mask? The first day of school at Green Central Park Elementary, in Minneapolis. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Read this article for free.

To continue reading this article and others for free, please sign up for our newsletter.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

As kids go back to school this week, parents are fervently hoping for a safe, healthy school year. More than anything, many want their children in school, learning in a classroom, playing with their friends, and enjoying a sense of normalcy. 

But parents are nervous, too. The return to school comes as Minnesota experiences a surge in COVID-19 cases from the more contagious Delta variant. They’re worried that their kids could get sick themselves, or spread the virus to family members. And they’re worried that the return to in-person learning might not last.

On Wednesday, Sahan Journal chatted with one mom waiting to pick up her kids from Minneapolis’ Hmong International Academy. She explained that she let her elementary-aged kids go back to school because they wanted to. All their friends were going back. But she felt wary. 

Minneapolis Public Schools has a mask mandate—meaning all students, staff, and visitors over the age of 2 are required to wear face coverings. But she worries staff and students might not wear masks at all times—or that the masks will slip below their noses. She also fears that children will sit too close together at lunch, not wearing masks. (She said she’s less worried about her vaccinated high schooler.)

Last week, we spoke with Dr. Michael Osterholm about how schools can keep kids, teachers, and communities safer from the Delta variant. You can read that Q&A here. But parents still want to know: What are schools actually doing this year to protect our children?

We reviewed Minneapolis and St. Paul district policies and called the districts with follow-up questions. Here are a few of the steps Minneapolis and St. Paul Public Schools are taking.

What’s the plan to get students and staff vaccinated?

On September 3, the St. Paul school board approved a resolution requiring all staff to be fully vaccinated or submit to weekly COVID-19 testing, effective October 15. St. Paul Public Schools is believed to be the third district in the state with such a mandate, joining Red Lake Schools in northwestern Minnesota and suburban Intermediate District 287 in requiring vaccines for staff.

Over the summer, St. Paul Public Schools hosted regular vaccine clinics for students. “We continue to be in conversation with both St. Paul Ramsey County Public Health, Children’s Minnesota and Health Start Clinics to look for opportunities to partner around the COVID-19 vaccine,” said district communications director Kevin Burns.

Minneapolis Public Schools has not established a vaccine mandate for staff, though that could change.

“Now that there is actually an approved vaccine available, we’re certainly going to review our policy and all the legal implications involved,” said Julie Schultz Brown, Minneapolis Public Schools’ executive director of marketing and communications. “But we have not made that declaration at this point.”

The district is also conducting staff surveys to see how many employees are already vaccinated, she said. MPS is using email, social media, and other channels to encourage vaccination for eligible students. At this point, the district is not holding vaccine clinics, but outside partners have hosted clinics at school sites.

Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

What about ventilation? Will kids just be breathing each other’s germs all day?

While public attention has often focused on masks and vaccines, Osterholm and other experts say building ventilation is critical, too. Assessing schools’ ventilation can be technical, wonky, and difficult to decipher. But here’s a summary of what the districts say they’re doing.

At St. Paul Public Schools, the district is in the process of completing “several mechanical system improvement projects” based on its capital plan—including $7 million in ventilation upgrades to Phalen Lake Hmong Studies Magnet School.

But not every school got a full-scale ventilation upgrade. Throughout the district, St. Paul Public Schools has upgraded every classroom to a baseline of MERV 11 filters and MERV 13, where possible. (MERV stands for Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value. The higher the MERV value, the more efficiently the filter traps particles. According to the EPA, filters of MERV 13 or higher can catch smaller particles, including viruses.) The district also conducted an Indoor Air Quality assessment to measure the amount of carbon dioxide in each classroom when in use. Since people breathe out carbon dioxide, this measurement serves as a proxy for how much breath—and therefore COVID-19 risk—is in the air. 

Outdoor carbon dioxide levels currently average about 415 parts per million. The district considers anything above 1,100 parts per million to be elevated. Classrooms that measured above 1,100 ppm will also have a portable HEPA filter unit. (Yes, another acronym: HEPA stands for High Efficiency Particulate Air [filter]. These filters can also catch small particles like viruses.) 

Burns, the communications director for St. Paul Public Schools, noted that maintenance trades and Indoor Air Quality / Testing and Balancing staff have also mitigated potential root causes for any rooms that measured above 1,100 ppm, so the HEPA units are “out of an abundance of caution.”

Check the carbon dioxide measurement of your child’s classrooms here.

In Minneapolis Public Schools, air filters were upgraded to MERV 14 where possible. Where that wasn’t possible, classrooms added HEPA filter units.

According to an FAQ on the district’s website, if your classroom does not have a portable HEPA filter, that means the classroom ventilation was upgraded to MERV 14.

The exception is Anwatin Middle School, which uses a bipolar ionization system. According to Minneapolis Public Schools, “The bipolar ionization system installed is effective at eliminating bacteria, virus, mold and volatile organic compounds.” (The Anoka-Hennepin School District uses this system, too.)

But many indoor air-quality experts say bipolar ionization is not a proven technology and can even put harmful byproducts into the air. Osterholm told Sahan Journal that schools should stick with HEPA filters, and make homemade Corsi boxes when those are not available. 

You can see your Minneapolis school’s ventilation plan here.

Forget reading and math tests—what about COVID tests?

Neither district is requiring COVID-19 tests for students, but both are providing testing resources. 

St. Paul Public Schools encourages unvaccinated people to get tested weekly. After the vaccine mandate goes into effect October 15, staff who have not provided proof of vaccination will be required to undergo a weekly test. 

Communications director Kevin Burns said the district is still determining testing options. SPPS encourages free resources like home test kits or community testing sites.

Minneapolis Public Schools will provide saliva tests for staff at any time throughout the week. Schools will also provide take-home test kits for students. The district website lists free testing resources for students and families through the Minnesota Department of Health and the Vault home test kits

The district hasn’t established any kind of mandatory testing policy, Schultz Brown said, but it could be part of the vaccine mandate discussion.

Will staff and students have high-quality masks?

Masks will be required for staff and students in both Minneapolis and St. Paul. 

St. Paul Public Schools expects face coverings—whether cloth or surgical masks—for most students and employees. Because of recent OSHA changes, SPPS now requires N95 masks for staff who work directly with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patients (that is, mostly health staff). 

The district is also providing medical grade masks, and requires them for staff who support students with certain health-care procedures like toileting or tube feedings, Burns said.

In Minneapolis, people are asked to bring their own masks, though “standard masks” will be available, Schultz Brown said.

What about lunch? It seems like no one has really figured out how to do this safely?

Unfortunately, it remains impossible to wear a mask properly and eat lunch at the same time (although some students may have fun trying).

In St. Paul, individual schools will decide whether meals will be served in cafeterias or classrooms. The district will require assigned seating during meals, and masks are required when students and staff are not eating or drinking. 

The district will continue its universal Breakfast to Go program, which provides pre-packaged meals to be eaten in the classroom. Instead of using traditional lunch trays, lunch will be served in reusable containers with lids. Table decals will designate seating locations in cafeterias.

Minneapolis recommends maintaining 6 feet of distance between groups of students during meals. The district also recommends seating charts. As needed, students may eat in lunchrooms or other common areas.

Want to know more? You can find St. Paul’s COVID safety plan here and Minneapolis Public Schools’ COVID plan here. If you belong to a different district or charter school, check their website for a plan.

More questions? Information or details we missed? Send us an email at bdernbach@sahanjournal.com.

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