Gov. Tim Walz on Thursday unveiled a prudent, nuanced reopening plan that gives state schools some flexibility in how they bring students back for the 2020-21 school year. Along with several other state officials, Walz outlined the "localized, data-driven approach" to allowing school reopening as the state experiences an uptick in confirmed COVID-19 cases.
The 21-page "Safe Learning Plan" calls for schools to take one of three approaches: in-person, distance learning or a hybrid model. The Minnesota Departments of Health and Education will work as partners with local school districts and charter schools to help them choose a model to start the school year.
The directive offers sensible guidance for balancing serious health risks with educational needs, as the Star Tribune Editorial Board urged on Sunday.
The goals of the plan prioritize in-person learning when possible, especially for younger kids, as well as the safety of students and staff. In schools that do open, masks will be required for both students and teachers. Schools that are not fully open would continue to provide free child care for children of front-line workers.
And the plan rightly gives families, students and staff choices. If they're uncomfortable with returning for health reasons, they may choose distance learning.
Under the state guidance, schools are asked to monitor MDH reporting of new virus cases. To fully reopen, a county would need to have fewer than nine cases of the virus per 10,000 residents over a 14-day period. Schools in counties with higher case counts could reopen with the hybrid model. Schools in counties with more than 50 cases per 10,000 residents would have to be fully online.
But even in the areas with higher case levels, the ability of schools to meet the safety thresholds (distancing, cleaning, protective equipment, etc.) would be taken into account. Local school leaders must work with state officials and be prepared to shift into another model if the infection rates demand it. This will be a "highly consultative process," said Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said. "Where you start, is not [necessarily] where you stay."
Understanding that meeting the guidelines will involve additional school costs, Walz said the state will use more than $430 million in federal funding to help schools, educators, students and families. The aid will help supply masks, COVID testing, cleaning supplies, transportation and technology needs including Wi-Fi access to schools.
As school districts across the U.S. make decisions on school reopenings, officials are sorting through a complex set of conditions. They've had to balance the risk of children, teachers and staffers getting sick or spreading the disease, with evidence that being out of school has negative effects on learning and mental health. Online learning has also made it more difficult for parents to work, created child-care problems and made it harder for some students to get nutritious food. And some students and families have limited internet access.
Minnesota's reopening plan acknowledges those challenges and offers a smart blueprint with the ability to be nimble enough to change as the science and virus data demands.