At a July 24 rally, Minneapolis and St. Paul educators left signs at Governor Tim Walz's mansion demanding that schools open safely or not at all. Walz announced Thursday that school decisions would largely be left to individual districts, with some guidance from the state. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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When schools closed in March, as the coronavirus graduated to pandemic status, most people thought—or at least hoped—that students and teachers would be back to a regular classroom setting soon. If not in the spring, at least by fall.

But as the United States keeps failing to get COVID-19 under control, the prospect of sending kids back to school has become less and less certain. It’s also become a hotly contested political issue, with President Donald J. Trump and Republicans insisting that schools should open as a step toward opening the economy. 

Still, the science remains unclear on whether returning to a school setting is safe for students—or the adults who teach and care for them. Teachers and parents of color, whose communities have been disproportionately harmed by the virus, have expressed more concerns about the safety of resuming in-person instruction.

On Thursday, Governor Tim Walz finally made his highly anticipated announcement about how Minnesota schooling will look this fall. His guidance, delivered in a 90-minute press conference in a Twin Cities Public Television studio in St. Paul, gives local districts flexibility to make their own decisions about whether and how to resume in-person learning. It also left many families with more questions than answers about what their children’s schooling might look like in the fall. 

Here’s what Walz’s big announcement means for your family.

What does Walz’s school announcement do?

Instead of issuing one big policy for the whole state about what schools will do, Walz set a “decision matrix.” These thresholds and standards should help individual schools and districts decide whether they will open for in-person instruction, distance learning or a hybrid of the two. 

In a hybrid model, classes would be held in a combination of online and in-person. For example, schools could send some students back to classrooms Monday and Tuesday, and others Wednesday and Thursday, allowing students to return to a less crowded environment. 

What does that range of options mean? What does the matrix do?

There are five categories of school opening formats based on the COVID-19 case rate in each county. The case rate is calculated by the county’s number of cases for the last 14 days, divided by the population of the county which is then divided by 10,000. 

You could consider it a math problem to practice over distance learning. But the state crunches the numbers for you.

What are the categories?

Are you a visual learner? Here’s a chart! 

Why are elementary schools prioritized for in-person learning?

A study released earlier this month out of South Korea shows that while kids ages 10–19 are as likely to spread coronavirus as older adults, children nine and under are less likely to spread it. The Walz administration used this study in formulating the state plan. Younger children’s educational needs are also harder to meet through remote learning.

Which counties will have to start with distance learning?

Trick question! Because this is based on data for the last two weeks, and case rates in different counties will change, we don’t actually know what the data will look like by the time schools start in September. 

If the school year were starting today, Lincoln, Pipestone, and Murray counties, in rural southwestern Minnesota, have the highest case rates and would require all distance learning. That’s nine school districts. All other counties in Minnesota would have the option of opening on a hybrid model for at least elementary students.

Schools are not bound to these categories, though. Even if in-person or hybrid learning is allowed in a county, some districts or schools could choose to stick with distance learning. High rates of community transmission? Difficulty distancing in buildings? Aging ventilation systems? Any of these factors could prompt local officials to shift to a more restrictive approach.

In other words, just because some in-person learning is allowed doesn’t mean your school will offer it. And nothing is permanent. As the case numbers shift weekly, schools very well may change to different modes of learning.

Can a school also choose to hold in-person classes even if the model doesn’t recommend it?

Yes, but those circumstances will probably be limited. For example, a COVID-19 outbreak might be limited to a worksite or senior care facility. If schools can show an ability to keep students safe, they could use a different model of learning than the matrix recommends. 

The state will be consulting with each district and charter school about their plans and any changes.

What does this plan mean for the Twin Cities?

As of today, Ramsey County’s case rate would allow it to open up elementary schools for in-person learning and hold hybrid classes for secondary students. But that case rate is rising, which makes that learning model subject to change. 

Hennepin County’s case rate is slightly higher, so schools in that district could have hybrid learning for all students. But again, we’re still more than a month away from the start of school and all these numbers will change.

Right after Walz’s announcement, Minneapolis Public Schools announced the district would be sticking with distance learning for the beginning of the school year. It also pledged to provide students with more rigor, structure and student support than were available last year.

Thursday night, St. Paul Public Schools also announced that beginning the school year with distance learning was the district’s “leading recommendation” and promised more information would be available next week.

So, what is going to happen with my kids’ schooling this fall?

Good question: Isn’t that what we all want to know? The answer depends on your school. While Minneapolis Public Schools came out with its announcement, and St. Paul Public Schools have indicated a similar direction, most other districts haven’t put forward public plans. 

The best source of information on your kids’ school will come directly from your district or charter school. Many of them have been waiting for state guidance before announcing a plan, so you can expect to hear from them in the coming days and weeks.

My kids go to a charter school. Does this guidance apply to charter schools too?

Yes. This guidance applies to all public and charter schools. 

Do private, parochial, and tribal schools have to stick with these rules?

Walz’s executive order does not apply to nonpublic and tribal schools, though the governor encouraged them to follow this guidance also. Private and tribal schools, like public schools, will be provided with masks.

My child has asthma/lives with her elderly grandmother/has a compromised immune system. This situation would put our family at a higher risk when she goes back to school. Can I keep her home even if the schools open?

Yes. The executive order mandates that every school provide an equitable distance-learning option for kids who don’t feel comfortable going back into a classroom setting, if and when their schools open. 

I’m a teacher and I’m worried about getting sick. Will I have to go back to school if my district resumes in-person classes? 

Teachers and staff whose health is at risk—or have a higher risk household member—will also have the option to work from home “to the extent possible,” according to Walz’s executive order.

I’m an essential worker (a nurse, a home care worker, a grocery store stocker) and I can’t leave my child home alone. What if my child’s school doesn’t open for in-person instruction?

Schools will continue to provide care for children of workers in certain critical sectors, as they did in the spring. Parents in need of childcare, whether or not they are part of these sectors, can visit www.mn.gov/childcare to see their options. Child-care assistance may also be available.

If schools are open, what precautions will be in place?

Students age five and up will be required to wear masks or protective face coverings. So will teachers and other staff. The state will provide one cloth mask for each student and staff member as well as three disposable masks in case a student forgets a mask. The state will also provide face shields as an alternative: Seeing a teacher’s face is important for some young learners or those who are hard of hearing.

School buildings that open will also require more frequent cleaning of high-touch areas and daily building cleanings. Personal protective equipment will also be required for student support services.

In hybrid learning, social distancing will be required: Six feet of distance between students and teachers will be the standard. State officials, however, acknowledge this won’t always be possible in a classroom. The hybrid model will also require limiting school buildings and transportation to half their regular capacity.

We need tests. Lots of tests.

Each educator will be provided one saliva test to use at his discretion if he’s worried he may have been exposed to COVID-19. Results on these tests will come back within 24-48 hours. Walz’s executive order also directs the commissioner of health to ensure any students or school staff exposed to COVID-19 are tested promptly. There may also be “testing events”—when many students or staff get tested at one time—if cases cluster in a school or community.

My student didn’t have a great experience with distance learning. 

Educators and school administrators say that with more time to prepare, and feedback from the spring, distance learning will better serve students this fall. 

How might distance learning be different this fall?

For one thing, many districts have already outfitted most students with the technological devices and platforms they’ll need for distance learning. And students, teachers and parents have learned how to use them. Funding from the coronavirus stimulus bill should help plug more of those technology gaps, too.

Teachers also now have more experience with distance learning, and this fall have the benefit of training and preparation over the summer.

Schools are also planning specific steps to make the educational experience better. Minneapolis, for example, plans to offer targeted in-person services: tutoring, technology and mental-health support. The district promises more support for students with special education or language-learning needs. The school board has also discussed ordering art and science kits for students to use for distance learning. 

And both Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts say they’ll have more live classroom experiences to keep students connected with their teachers and each other.

Is there anything we can do to make this pandemic go away and get our kids back in school buildings safely?

Walz says yes.

The secret, he said, of giving kids “the incredible gift” of an almost-normal public-school experience? “Do the simple things of wearing the mask and social distance and wash your hands.” 

Still, he cautioned that a rise in cases could dash the plan, and in turn kids’ education. “This plan alone won’t work if community spread accelerates,” he said. “This plan won’t work if people choose to gather in large groups.”

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