Minnesota students and teachers returning to classrooms for summer school will still find extra hand-washing stations and desks spaced for social distancing, but they may see one clear shift in pandemic precautions: fewer people wearing masks.
The end of the 2020-21 school year, which wrapped up last week in many school districts, also marks the expiration of the state's COVID-19 safety mandates for all public schools.
Districts are pivoting to a new rule book that comes with more recommendations than requirements, passing the hard decisions about things like mask requirements or quarantine timelines to local school leaders. Many districts are dropping their requirements about mask wearing — at least for school staff and older students, who are eligible for vaccination — but holding on to other additional safety measures meant to prevent the spread of the virus.
The changes come as school districts are looking to the summer as a time to help students regroup and catch up after a disruptive school year. Many have expanded their summer offerings and boosted enrollment with the help of additional federal money. School leaders are eager to begin the shift back to a school environment that isn't overshadowed by the pandemic.
"I think what I'm hearing and feeling most is hope, " said Lori Posch, executive director of learning and teaching for the St. Cloud Area School District, "just hope that we're returning to more of a sense of normalcy."
The state's new summer school guidance tracks closely with recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It recommends, but does not require, mask wearing in school buildings — particularly by anyone who is unvaccinated. COVID-19 vaccines have so far been approved for only people 12 and older, and it will likely be fall before younger elementary and middle school students become eligible for vaccination.
As a result, some districts have set different rules for younger students, older students and adults. Richfield Public Schools will make mask-wearing optional for fully vaccinated staff and high school students, though it will be on an honor system; the district won't verify who is and isn't vaccinated. But elementary and middle school students will still need their masks while inside school buildings.
Mary Clarkson, the district's director of special programs, said sorting out the rules for middle school was especially tricky since some of those students are old enough to be vaccinated but others don't yet qualify. In the end, the district decided to require masks for all middle schoolers this summer, even though some may have been vaccinated.
Clarkson said the shift to local decisionmaking on pandemic safety precautions is welcomed — but also complicated because many people have strong feelings on the subject.
"You have people on both sides of the fence that have very valid reasons for their belief system, so it puts the district in a place where no matter what decision you make you're going to have people on the opposite side saying, 'That's the wrong decision,' " she said.
Other districts are making masks optional for everyone. Mounds View Public Schools is ready with signs to be posted at each building that read: "Masks are not required for entry, but we strongly recommend that you wear one while inside." In St. Cloud, the school district is urging anyone unvaccinated to wear masks while indoors.
Moorhead Area Public Schools is recommending mask use except at one grade level: prekindergarten, where both students and teachers will be asked to wear masks.
Erika Yoney, the district's health services supervisor, said that distinction is in line with the separate set of recommendations the state has provided for child care and educational facilities caring for young children. Districts that run licensed child care facilities will still be expected to impose mask rules until July 1, or whenever 70% of Minnesota adults are vaccinated.
Some school systems are still finalizing their plans. A spokeswoman for Minneapolis Public Schools said her district's rules will closely follow the recommendations from the state health and education departments, and any differences would likely be minimal.
Meanwhile, all districts will require both adults and children on school buses to wear masks, because of federal guidelines mandating mask usage on public transportation.
Schools will continue to ask people to stay home if they have any symptoms of illness, and some will keep limiting visitors to school buildings. They'll all have to continue reporting their COVID-19 case counts to the state and will follow the now-familiar protocols for contact tracing and quarantining.
School leaders said they'll continue to set up classrooms and activities to provide for physical distancing between students — which should be easier in the summer with fewer students in each building. They will also head outside for lessons or field trips whenever possible, so students don't have to wear masks and virus transmission is far less likely.
Yoney, with the Moorhead school district, said she's hopeful that as schools phase out some of their pandemic procedures they also take note of which things might be useful changes for the long term. She noted that many of the cold and other viruses that typically keep kids out of school were absent most of this year, thanks in part to people paying extra attention to their health and hygiene.
"My greatest hope is that we don't rush to forget how tied together health and education are," she said.