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Minnesota school districts will be granted flexibility in their reopening decisions this fall, depending on the spread of COVID-19 in their communities and their ability to meet a long list of health and safety standards in school buildings.

In his “Safe Learning Plan” released Thursday, Gov. Tim Walz said state officials are taking a “localized, data-driven approach” to reopening schools amid the global pandemic, with a goal of getting students back in the classroom while minimizing the spread of the virus. That means schools that meet particular thresholds could get clearance to reopen full or part time, while those in COVID-19 hot spots may have to start the school year at home, with distance learning.

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The plan outlines a year in which schools that are able — and choose — to open will need to maintain strict cleaning procedures, make accommodations for physical distancing, enforce near-universal mask wearing and quickly pivot in the event of a school or community COVID-19 outbreak.

“As we look to this fall … this is going to be a first day of school unlike any we’ve seen,” Walz said.

The state’s plan uses state Department of Health tracking of new virus cases as the first hurdle schools must clear to consider reopening. Schools could consider full returns to in-person classes if they are in counties with fewer than 10 COVID-19 cases per 10,000 residents over a 14-day period.

Schools in counties with higher case counts could attempt to reopen on a more limited basis for full- or part-time classes, with younger students getting priority for in-person instruction. Schools in counties with more than 50 cases per 10,000 residents, meanwhile, would likely have to be fully remote.

Based on recent county data, about 180 school districts — many of them in northern Minnesota — would meet the threshold for a full reopening. On the other end of the spectrum, nine districts would have to be online in areas experiencing widespread virus activity. At the moment, the counties in the worst position to reopen schools are in southwest Minnesota: Lincoln, Murray and Pipestone.

But state officials were quick to caution that those numbers are likely to shift, and they amount to only a starting point in decisions about whether schools can or should reopen. School administrators will be paired with state health and education officials to evaluate how the virus is spreading in local communities — if it’s an outbreak that can be traced to one employer and more quickly contained, for example — and whether school buildings in particular districts have the space and design to safely accommodate students and staff.

And while local districts can decide to open if they meet all the metrics, the state’s education commissioner still has the power to order them to shift to distance learning if officials determine that the health situation is worsening.

The state plans to supply students and teachers with cloth and disposable face masks, and teachers and some staff will get clear face shields. Schools will also get a supply of tests for teachers who think they may have been exposed to the virus, though some teachers raised concerns Thursday over whether those supplies would be substantial enough if multiple tests were needed.

“We are going to make sure that we give you the tools necessary,” Walz said. “That is going to mean making sure that we are testing in our schools.”

As in the first months of the pandemic, schools that are not fully open would be required to provide free child care for school-age children of critical workers. Schools will also have to accommodate students who do not want to return to in-person classes with options for full-time distance learning.

Determining how many students will opt to stay at home — and potentially how many teachers and staff members may decide to leave their jobs, take a leave of absence or seek other accommodations — remains an open question for school districts. Many notified parents on Thursday that administrators are reviewing the governor’s plans and that they’ll be sending out surveys before determining how to proceed.

David Law, superintendent of the Anoka-Hennepin School District, said that will be the case for the state’s largest district.

He said he was glad to see a plan built around science and specific metrics, but he expects many people eagerly awaiting some specifics about the school year will be disappointed.

Because his district spans two counties that now fall into different categories for reopening, based on virus cases, Law said the situation is still a little unclear.

He said that could be the case for the year, as the virus ebbs and grows and schools re-evaluate their options.

“I know how frustrating it will be for parents as these numbers float up and down,” he said. “But to be honest, I’m not sure how else you could do it.”

Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, consulted with state officials as they developed their plans. He offered praise for a strategy built around “informed flexibility.”

“It allows for the flexibility that schools are going to need right now because conditions are going to continue to change between now and the time we hopefully get an effective vaccine,” he said.

Evidence in other nations has shown that schools safely reopened when there was low or declining COVID-19 transmission in surrounding communities, he said.

“We now know that, in fact, much of the risk related to school-based transmission is also related to what’s going on inside the community,” Osterholm said. “If we can drive down transmission in the community, schools will be a much safer place.”

Responses won’t differ just by district, but by schools within the district, he added, because high school students present more risks for spreading COVID-19 in their communities compared with children in elementary schools.

“I don’t think there’s any evidence that the younger kids are a prime source for transmission in the community,” he said.

School districts will also have the flexibility to decline or limit in-person instruction, even if the state allows it. At least one district, Minneapolis Public Schools, has already announced that it will start the year with schools closed, even though the current virus conditions could allow for a combination of in-person and distance learning. Thursday evening, St. Paul Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard said he also would recommend that his district — the state’s second-largest — should begin the year online.

In other states, a growing list of large school districts have said they’ll also keep students at home this fall, including those in Denver, Los Angeles, Houston and Atlanta. In some cases, plans to reopen schools fully or in a hybrid model have been shelved and replaced with more restrictions. President Donald Trump has called for schools to fully reopen, and the debate over safety, student achievement and the economic realities of school closures have prompted vigorous political debate around the country.

In Minnesota, Walz’s decision comes after a summer in which hospital admission rates for people with COVID-19 — a key indicator of the virus’ spread — declined before starting to tick up again. Surveys issued by the state Department of Education, individual school districts and the teachers union indicate mixed feelings about schools reopening.

Education Minnesota, the union representing about 80,000 Minnesota teachers, said its survey showed teachers split over the idea of returning to the classroom, with fewer than 1 in 5 supporting the idea of classes resuming full time. Denise Specht, the union’s president, said her organization is reaching out to teachers to ensure they know their rights if they feel conditions are unsafe in their schools.

She suggested that schools might need to push back start dates if they don’t have enough time to ensure health and safety protocols are in place.

“We want safe learning spaces, we want safe learning conditions and we’re going to do everything we can to help the educators we represent to ensure that buildings are safe,” she said.

Parents, meanwhile, were left trying to sort out where their children’s schools might fit in the swirl of decision­making.

In St. Paul, Keyondra Yarbrough said she’s not opposed to the idea of her second-grader continuing to learn from home. But she wants the structure of a real school day, with teachers being in charge of classes that are expected to meet at specific times, designated lunch times and recess and clear expectations for when homework needs to be turned in.

Last spring, too much of the responsibility for children’s education was put on parents, Yarbrough said. With jobs of their own and other home responsibilities, it was too much.

Yarbrough said she hopes officials used the summer to come up with better options because “I feel like things won’t return to normal until the following school year.”

Staff writers Glenn Howatt and James Walsh contributed to this report.

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