COVID-19 cases in Minnesota preK-12 schools have dropped significantly since mid-September with the number of new infections falling nearly 70%.
Last week saw 920 new confirmed or probable coronavirus cases among students and employees in 514 preK-12 school buildings.
That's down from this school year's peak of 2,924 new cases in 1,028 buildings during the week of Sep. 19, according to data compiled by the Minnesota Department of Health.
However, one student and two staff members died of COVID-19 complications last week, bringing the pandemic fatality total to two students and 13 school employees.
It is the first death of a student and the fifth death of an employee this school year.
"Five school staff members and one student have died of COVID-19 this school year and it's only October," Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said. "There is no excuse for any district leader to ignore the guidelines for masking, social distancing, quarantining and vaccinations set out by state and federal public health authorities."
Additionally, state health officials reported that 27 more school students and staff were hospitalized, including five who required intensive care.
Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm welcomed the decrease in school-related COVID-19 cases.
"Certainly that is good news that it came down week over week," Malcolm said. "We don't think that is just a fluke, but does it stay that way and what accounts for the suddenness of the drop? So, there's more to look into."
Reporting delays of positive COVID-19 tests makes drawing conclusions about trends more difficult for the most recent weeks. In addition to the 920 new school cases that MDH reported for last week, it also added about another 1,500 cases from the three previous weeks as more reports arrived at the health agency.
"We're in the caution business and want to see sustained trends before we feel like something has turned the corner," she said.
Federal and state health officials recommend masking in schools, as well as social distancing and asking anyone who feels sick to stay home. Apart from a federal regulation that masks must be worn on school buses, school boards and administrators are not required to adhere to the guidelines.
As a result, there is a patchwork of COVID-19 prevention policies throughout the state and even within some districts where masking might be required in buildings that have high infection rates but not in others.
Vaccination rates also vary across the state. Older students are eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine, but rates for those groups are below the statewide fully vaccinated rate of 69.8%.
Among those 12 to 15, 50% are fully vaccinated while for those 16 and 17 the rate is 56%.
In an effort to boost those numbers, Gov. Tim Walz on Monday announced a $200 vaccination incentive program for any 12- to 17-year-old who completes the vaccination series by Nov. 30.
The federal government is expected to approve the Pfizer vaccine for children 5 to 11 in the first week of November.
"We're asking parents to please reduce the risk of another tragic death of a student by vaccinating their teens," Specht said. "When the vaccine becomes available to younger children, vaccinate them, too."
A third of parents surveyed by the Kaiser Family Foundation said they would vaccinate their 5- to 11-year-old child "right away" once the vaccine is authorized.
A roughly equal number of parents said they will "wait and see" how the vaccine is working, while 24% said they definitely would not get their child vaccinated.
The drop in school-related cases comes as some pandemic measures show recent declines.
The number of Minnesotans hospitalized with COVID-19 complications has fallen for the third consecutive day to 928, including 248 in intensive care.
The state's testing positive rate is down to 8.1% from a recent high of 8.4%. The number of new cases per 100,000 residents is at 47.4 down from 52.7 about a week earlier.
Another 2,361 confirmed COVID-19 cases were reported Thursday along with 26 new deaths.
Among those deaths was a 15- to 19-year-old Hennepin County resident.
So far, the pandemic has claimed the lives of 8,515 Minnesotans and infected 768,112 residents.
Nearly 70% of vaccine-eligible Minnesotans have received the complete series of COVID-19 vaccinations, with 3.2 million getting either the two-dose Pfizer or Moderna shots or the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Staff writer Jeremy Olson contributed to this report.