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Gov. Walz unveils timeline for middle school, high school students to return to classroom

Walz said he expects all schools to offer some form of in-person learning by March 8.

ST PAUL, Minn. — Governor Tim Walz has announced a timeline for bringing middle and high school students back to the classroom.

According to a release from the governor's office, all middle and high school students can resume hybrid or in-person learning starting Feb. 22. Walz said he expects all Minnesota schools to offer "some form" of in-person learning by March 8.

Walz's office said districts and charter schools that are already holding in-person or hybrid learning or have publicly announced a plan to transition to in-person or hybrid learning can continue with their plans. Families who do not feel comfortable sending their students back to the classroom can still choose distance learning. 

"We're on offense now," Walz said in the briefing. He said Minnesota's current test-positivity rates mirror last summer's and that the state's vaccination efforts are ramping up. "The sacrifices you made saved lives."  

According to the governor's office, 85% of K-8 students are already back to some type of in-person learning, including hybrid modes. Walz said many schools resumed in-person learning pre-vaccination, and have done so safely. He  pointed out while answering a question that younger students in Grand Rapids have only spent 13 school days out of the classroom since the pandemic started. 

A spokesman for the governor, Teddy Tschann, said the COVID-19 transmission rate among teachers is 0.37%. Walz said himself that Minnesota is among just eight states to prioritize the vaccination of educators and child care workers, and feels that decision helped pave the way to now return return students to the classroom in greater numbers. 

The CDC released updated guidance on in-person learning last week, emphasizing the importance of masking and social distancing. The recommendations said there is "strong evidence now that in-person schooling can be done safely, especially at lower grade levels."

Last week, Gov. Walz spoke about Minnesota's "first-in-the-nation educator testing program," which would provide on-site COVID-19 testing in school cafeterias to staffers who have direct contact with students.

Walz's office said more than 96% of school districts have signed up to participate as of last Friday. On top of that, the office said 41% of nonpublic schools and two out of four tribal schools will participate.

In the past, Minnesota teachers unions have voiced their opposition to returning students to classrooms. SPPS teachers have held protests, and the Minneapolis Teacher Union was granted the right to teach from home if they're able by a Hennepin County court. Walz was asked if he would force union educators back into the classroom, and he insisted that will not be necessary. 

"We don't push them, we partner with them," Walz said, "finding the safe way to do it." He said sharing the latest information and safety protocols will lead to partnership. 

Gov. Walz says it is "entirely possible" that there will be an outbreak in some schools, and that state health experts will help districts react. "Our hope is that we catch it early because of testing, that we have the most vulnerable vaccinated so it doesn't spread, and that we contain it in a small area so it doesn't affect... other classrooms, certainly other buildings."

Department of Health Assistant Commissioner Dan Huff elaborated, explaining that intervention will be based on several criteria, including level of influenza-like illness and county infection rate data. In-person learning will not be shut down immediately, but red flags will lead to a "conversation between state health and education officials and the district in question" about steps that can be taken to stop a potential outbreak. "Mitigate the risk, while keeping schools as open as we can," Huff explained. 

RELATED: Court: District must accept Minneapolis teachers' work-from-home accommodation requests

Republican Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said the governor's plans won't stop the Senate from voting on a plan to leave school decisions up to school leaders.

“Nothing that is said today will change the Senate’s plan to vote tomorrow on Senate File 2, which puts this decision back where it needs to be -- exclusively in the hands of local school leaders." Gazelka said in a press release. "All the science says we can and should open schools for the academic and emotional health of our children. Yet most kids are still receiving too much instruction by distance learning. It’s become obvious the main thing standing in the way from a full reopening of schools are the teacher’s unions. Their demands to delay in-person instruction is failing kids, parents, and our future." 

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