IRON RANGE — Fall education in Minnesota and on the Iron Range will take a localized approach guided by the rate of infections at county levels, a complex model that will require coordination among school districts and state health and education officials.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and his cabinet unveiled the Safe Learning Plan on Thursday that embraces in-person learning, but leaves it to districts to decide whether their school systems will start the year in buildings, online or some combination based on their local COVID-19 conditions.
State officials will provide analytical guidance to districts during the school year to help superintendents decide if they need to tweak their plans.
The state will fund and provide one cloth mask for each student and teacher, up to three disposable masks each and one face shield for teachers. It will also fund testing for students and staff, including at private schools, which are not covered by the state’s guidance.
Districts are encouraged to allow parents to opt into distance learning if they prefer.
“It’s going to be a first day of school unlike any we’ve seen,” Walz said, explaining that the model is driven by data and involved stakeholders from schools and public health in its development. “Not all schools look the same, not all parts of our state look the same.”
Health officials will generate a two-week infection rate that districts are expected to use to assess the risk of COVID in schools. Rates can change as the start of the school year approaches and officials Thursday said the models used by schools may vary as time goes on, noting they’re only requiring one-week’s notice from the district on their intent to shift from one model to the next.
The equation from the Walz administration uses the infection rate per 10,000 people within each county and gives suggestions based on those rates for in-person classes, hybrid models based on students’ ages and full-on distance learning.
Districts aren’t locked into a model based on the infection rate and requirement set out by the Safe Learning Plan, but Walz said he expects schools to use health data as “a starting point for their decision making.”
St. Louis County’s 14-day rolling infection rate as of Thursday falls under guidance for in-person learning for all students, but the ultimate decision will come from the districts, some which might have older ventilation systems and not enough room to support the model. Or districts may opt into a hybrid model out of precaution.
Based on equations released by Walz’s office, schools in counties with about 20 percent of the state’s population would be able to have all students in classrooms if school started today.
Another 38 percent of the state’s population would have elementary students in schools while upper grades had a mix of in-school and distance learning.
Most of the counties in the rest of the state, just under 40 percent, would have all students using hybrid learning. No school districts currently fall under the guidance to hold distance learning for all students.
Hibbing Superintendent Richard Aldrich wrote in an email Thursday to the Mesabi Tribune that his district would open to in-person if school started tomorrow. They would “require masks, encourage social distancing, screen students at our entrances and promote handwashing and other preventive measures.”
Rock Ridge Superintendent Dr. Noel Schmidt wrote that they’re still digesting the Safe Learning Plan and have not arrived at a decision for students. Rock Ridge was officially formed on July 1 as a consolidation of Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert school districts.
He added they’re looking at ways to reopen with the maximum number of students, but plainly said the surrounding community can play a large role in making that happen.
“The moral to the story is simple,” he said. “Communities that want their kids in school the maximum amount of time should follow the health guidelines. Communities that flout the guidelines are increasing the mathematical odds their kids will not be in school.”
Minneapolis Public Schools announced Wednesday, ahead of Walz’s announcement, that they will start the school year with distance learning.
Minnesota schools have been closed since March 18, when total positive cases in the state were still in double-digits and no cases had been reported in St. Louis County.
On Thursday, MDH reported a total of 53,692 cases, with 745 newly reported cases and a daily record of 18 in St. Louis County. Deaths in the state are currently at 1,594, with the majority connected to long-term care or assisted living facilities. The first COVID-19 death in the state wasn’t reported until March 21.
The state also reported Thursday that it has completed more than 1 million tests.
Recently, MDH has reported a marked rise in the number of positive COVID-19 cases in the 6-19 year old category with a total of 6,131 cases. Although there have been no deaths in this age group, there has been one death in the 0-5 years old age range, which has had 1,158 positive cases in Minnesota.
COVID-19 in youth has been linked to multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C). MDH reports a total of 15 MIS-C cases; 11 cases in 0-5 year olds and four in 16-19 year olds.
In St. Louis County (SLC), there have been a total of 366 positive cases of COVID-19 with 18 deaths.
Positive cases were originally located mainly in the Duluth area, rural regions have recently seen a rise in cases, as reported by county public health officials. In Hibbing, there have been 20 confirmed cases and a total of 12 throughout the Quad Cities of Virginia, Eveleth, Gilbert and Mountain Iron.
Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said on Thursday that she expects cases to be detected in schools this fall, but said the state will be ready to help and try to control any outbreaks through an “incident command team” and make recommendations about when to limit or eliminate face-to-face teaching.
”Unfortunately — and boy we all wish this was different — COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon. It is still very much with us,” she said. “We are still in the growth phase of this pandemic, but we also can't stop attending to the learning needs of Minnesota kids.”
MPR News contributed to this report.