(The Center Square) – On Wednesday, Gov. Tim Walz updated Minnesota’s Safe Learning Plan to allow more middle school and high school students to return to the classroom for hybrid or in-person learning as early as Monday.
Walz expects all schools to offer their students some form of in-person learning by March 8, but said he won’t force them to comply.
“We don’t push them, we partner with them,” Walz said.
Walz’s administration says 85% of K-8 classes are in some form of in-person learning, and the transmission rate among teachers is 0.37%.
However, many schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul haven’t returned to in-person instruction.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Walz said of a reporter asking him what he would do if teachers’ unions refuse to return to in-person work.
“It’s time for students to be back in the classroom,” Walz said. “We aren’t out of the woods, but our relentless progress with vaccines and Minnesotans’ vigilance has put us closer than ever to the end of this pandemic. Our progress means we can get more students safely back into classrooms.”
Minnesota has injected the first COVID-19 vaccine into more than 695,000 people. Nearly 25% of teachers and 40% of seniors have been vaccinated with a first dose. Minnesotans ages 65 and older account for 90% of the state’s COVID-19 deaths.
The daily percentage of positive COVID-19 tests is below 5%, down from a peak of 15%. Hospitalizations are also steadily declining to pre-pandemic levels.
Roughly 96% of Minnesota school districts signed up to participate in a testing program where supplies are delivered every two weeks.
Families can choose whether they want their children to participate in in-person, hybrid, or virtual schools.
The plan allows every elementary school statewide to operate in person as long as they implement mitigation strategies such as wearing masks and social distancing.
“I’ve seen first-hand how this virus has robbed students of the special moments and milestones they have looked forward to their entire academic careers,” Deputy Commissioner Heather Mueller said. “Giving every Minnesota student an opportunity for some in-person learning is such a boost for our students’ academic progress as well as their mental health and well-being.”
Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, was cynical about the announcement.
“This is just a weak attempt to get some good PR without upsetting the teachers’ union,” Chamberlain said in a statement. “The governor seems to be the last person to arrive at the conclusion everyone else reached months ago: distance learning has been a disaster for kids, and they have got to be back in the classroom right now.”
Republicans’ skepticism for teachers’ unions likely stems from watching Chicago public school teachers originally refuse to return to the classroom.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said the announcement won’t change the Senate voting on Senate File 2 on Thursday, which aims to allow only local school leaders to decide when to return to school and in what form of instruction.
“All the science says we can and should open schools for the academic and emotional health of our children,” Gazelka said in a statement. “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 teachers’ unions. Their demands to delay in-person instruction is failing kids, parents, and our future.”
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, welcomed the announcement.
“We all want kids back in the classroom safely, and today’s announcement to speed up that process for middle school and high school students is welcome news,” Hortman said in a statement. “Minnesota’s schoolchildren miss seeing their teachers and friends in person, and distance learning has brought challenges for many.”