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Walz unveils new guidance for getting students back to school

MARSHALL — As COVID-19 positivity rates have gone down in Minnesota and a growing number of people have been vaccinated, the next goal is to get more kids out of distance learning and back into schools, Gov. Tim Walz said Wednesday.

Walz announced a new target date of March 8 for schools to offer some form of in-person learning. Middle and high school students can return to hybrid or in-person learning starting Monday.

“It’s time to get our students back in school, and we can do that safely,” Walz said.

Along with that announcement, the Minnesota Department of Education said schools are no longer required to use a “rolling start” to get students back to hybrid or full in-person learning. Previously, schools needed to limit the number of students coming back to class to a certain number of grades at once, to prevent crowding and slow the spread of COVID-19.

Schools must still take steps to slow the spread of COVID-19, including offering regular COVID testing for school staff, wearing face coverings and following physical distancing requirements

The new guidance unveiled Wednesday may not have a lot of immediate impact on area schools. Several area school districts already have all their students back in class in person, or are close to finishing a rolling start for middle and high school students.

Marshall Superintendent Jeremy Williams said Wednesday that he wasn’t sure yet if the new guidance will change Marshall Public Schools’ plan to get middle and high school students back into classrooms. Students in grades 5 and 6 at Marshall Middle School, and grades 9 and 10 at Marshall High School, returned to class full-time starting this week. The plan was for the rest of MMS and MHS students to return to in-person learning on March 1.

For now, Williams said, he thought MPS would stay with its initial plan of bringing all students back to school by March 1.

“We’re thrilled to have people back,” he said.

The Russell-Tyler-Ruthton School District also planned to bring all of its students back to class in March, and Superintendent David Marlette said the district will be sticking to that plan. Currently, the goal is for all students to come back starting March 22, after all RTR staff who wish to receive the COVID-19 vaccine have been vaccinated. However, Marlene said the new guidance ending rolling starts would make it possible to bring all four grades of RTR High School students back to class at once.

Minneota Public Schools had all of its students back in the classroom as of Feb. 1. Students in kindergarten through sixth grade were the first to return, in December, while students in grades 7-12 gradually came back in January. Other school districts, including Lakeview, Lynd, Ivanhoe and Tracy, already have in-person learning for all students.

Walz said Wednesday that Minnesota has made good progress in keeping COVID-19 rates from surging after Thanksgiving and Christmas, and in vaccinating vulnerable populations.

So far, nearly 25% of teachers and 40% of seniors in the state have been vaccinated for COVID-19, he said. While vaccine supplies are still limited, Walz said 18,000 doses would become available for educators in Minnesota next week.

Even as the numbers of vaccinated people in Minnesota continue to grow, it’s still important to follow COVID safety recommendations, said Lieutenant Gov. Peggy Flanagan. That includes avoiding crowds, wearing face coverings and getting vaccinated, she said.

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