The current 14-day rate of coronavirus infections in Minnesota counties is the key metric state leaders will use to help school districts determine whether it is safe to hold classes in person.
If rates climb above 10 new cases per 10,000 residents, state officials will recommend older students are taught in a hybrid model where buildings are used at 50 percent capacity each day.
Counties that exceed 50 cases per 10,000 residents over a two-week period should strongly consider holding all classes online.
Those metrics are how Gov. Tim Walz along with state and health officials are providing guidance to education leaders around the state as the 2020-21 school year approaches. Walz emphasized the benchmarks are not set in stone and decisions will be made by local leaders with input from the state.
“By bringing together the local education leaders who know their students, staff and communities the best, and the public health experts who know the virus the best, this plan will help determine a learning model that makes the most sense for each community,” Walz wrote in a letter to school officials released Thursday outlining the plans.
In the coming weeks, local district leaders will be informed by state health and education officials the severity of their community's coronavirus outbreaks. That will help them decide which model to use when classes begin.
Outbreak data will be closely monitored and state officials are expected to routinely update recommendations with the help of regional experts. State health officials reserve the right to step in should a district’s outbreak get out of hand.
Here’s the specific breakdown of where cases need to be for different types of instruction:
- Cases below 9 per 10,000: In-person learning for all students
- 10 to 19 cases per 10,000: In-person for elementary students and hybrid learning for others
- 20 to 29 cases per 10,000: Hybrid for all students
- 30 to 49 cases per 10,000: Hybrid for younger students and distance learning for secondary students
- More than 50 cases per 10,000: Distance learning for all students.
Under these thresholds, current infection rates suggest just a few schools would be recommended to only use distance learning. There are 41 counties where a mix of in-person and online learning would be recommended.
Forty-five counties have infection rates low enough today they could offer in-person instruction to all students under the state’s guidelines, including McLeod and Meeker counties.
According to data from the Minnesota Department of Health, McLeod County had a rate of 6.14 cases per 10,000 residents, and Meeker County had a rate of 6.07 case per 10,000 residents, meaning schools in both county's are recommended to open for in-person learning.
The Leader reached out to Hutchinson Superintendent Daron VanderHeiden for his reaction to Walz's guidelines but did not receive a response in time for this story.
In an email to parents from Glencoe-Silver Lake Superintendent Chris Sonju, he said he believes GSL schools should be able to open for in-person learning on Sept. 8.
"I believe this is a good thing, but I also recognize and understand that there is still details and work to be done to ensure the health and well-being of everyone involved," Sonju said. "We will also be working on a distance learning component for families that feel that this model is in their best interest. Our goal is to work with families and our staff to make sure your educational experience is done at a high level and that we are working with and recognizing the health and safety for all involved."
FOCUS ON YOUNGER LEARNERS IN CLASS
State and national data have shown younger people are at lower risk of developing serious cases of COVID-19. The benchmarks Walz announced Thursday uses that growing evidence to prioritize having younger learners in classrooms.
If infections grow in a county, older students will be the first ones to move to learning online part of the time. Prioritizing younger students in classrooms will also help working parents and address the struggles elementary school students faced learning virtually.
Hybrid learning is a mix of in-person classes and distance learning.
The hybrid model requires 6 feet of social distancing at all times with buildings and buses being used at 50 percent capacity. Districts must also have adequate staff to ensure students are taught equitably and safely.
There were large disparities in access to robust distance learning during the spring because of limits on equipment and internet access. Under the new plan, districts must provide equitable distance learning opportunities to all students.
Any families can opt into distance learning if they prefer to learn from home.
State officials said the safety of staff is also a top priority and teachers also will be given the option of working from home if they choose. Walz acknowledged that districts may struggle to offer in-person courses if many teachers opt to provide instruction from a distance.
“This is a plan that is data driven, localized and grounded in science,” said Mary Cathryn Ricker, education commissioner. “It allows schools to build on their strengths, receive critical health information they need from experts along with the guidance they will get from our department. This plan prioritizes safe teaching and learning environments for all our students and staff.”
MASKS, TESTS AND CLEANING
All students and staff will be required to wear masks throughout the school day. State leaders will help districts provide protective gear for students and staff including face shields for teachers who work with younger students.
“We all recognize that COVID-19 is going to continue to impact our schools and our communities for months to come, but those impacts are varied and hard to predict,” Malcolm said. “It is important for the well-being of Minnesota children that we get this right, and that we have solid and flexible plans in place to adapt to the COVID-19 challenge.”