As students head back to school this week, Minnesota Republicans continue to criticize Gov. Tim Walz over time missed in the classroom during the pandemic, homing in on a comment he made during a recent interview.
"Would you have done the schools any differently?" reporter Esme Murphy asked Walz during a WCCO interview at the Minnesota State Fair. "I think that's where a lot of parents are upset — about what happened with the schools. Do you think you could have made any other choice?"
In his response, the DFL governor said that "over 80% of our students missed less than 10 days of in-class learning."
That statistic has been the focal point of Walz's critics, who said students missed many days of classroom learning during the pandemic after his administration issued an executive order closing schools.
The WCCO reporter asked about decisions Walz made during the pandemic — and that 80% statistic is not correct for the entire pandemic. When asked by the Star Tribune to show supporting evidence for his claim, the governor's office said Walz was referring to the 2021-2022 school year in the interview, although he did not specify a timeframe in his response.
The governor's office did not provide data to back up his claim that 80% of students missed fewer than 10 days in the last school year.
Walz initially closed schools to in-person learning on March 18, 2020, including eight canceled days to give districts time to implement distance learning plans. In April of that year, the governor announced that schools would continue distance learning for the remainder of the 2020 spring semester.
It was up to school districts to decide whether to do distance learning, a hybrid format or return to in-class learning in fall 2020, with guidance from state health officials based on local COVID-19 conditions.
Many schools remained closed in fall 2020 into the winter and spring of 2021. The number of students who missed class during that period is tracked by individual school districts and varies widely.
A few moments later in the interview, Walz said students have been back in classroom learning since May 2021.
The state placed no restrictions on in-class learning during the 2021-2022 school year and "made every effort to prevent COVID from disrupting the school year," spokesperson Claire Lancaster said in a statement.
Republicans have been critical of the administration's decisions around school closures and masking throughout the pandemic, arguing the decision set students back in learning.
"Tim Walz is giving out false stats like this and talking out both sides of his mouth on education," tweeted Walz's GOP opponent, Scott Jensen. "His policies have hurt students!"
In the interview, Walz said he would have done some things differently in hindsight, but no action at the time was not an option.
"Over one million Americans died, 13,000 Minnesotans, long COVID is real and we lost children to this," Walz told WCCO in the interview.
Minnesota Department of Education spokesperson Kevin Burns said Walz's 80% figure is likely a conservative estimate of how many students were in class during the 2021-2022 school year.
Burns said there were no executive orders pertaining to education in effect during that school year, so all Minnesota schools offered an in-person option. Any distance learning scenarios were a choice by families or school districts.