COVID-19 kudos: Walz gives districts control to plan new school year
Lacking a magic wand that would cure COVID-19 or at least ease Minnesotans’ frustrations stemming from it, Gov. Tim Walz is nevertheless putting forth a reasonable plan to get the 2020-2021 school year started.
Its three biggest selling points:
• First, each district makes it own plan.
• Second, those plans are to be built on data.
• And third, the plan stresses flexibility.
The safety of students and staff, along with providing an equitable education and allowing individual choice, underpin each of those selling points.
That said, the plan will undoubtedly raise questions as districts work to apply it to their own real-world settings.
As the first-term DFL governor astutely notes in introducing a 21-page overview of the plan, “throughout the school year, we will need to be flexible and adapt with the fluid nature of this pandemic.”
Fluidity is why Walz and state educational leaders earlier this summer mandated that schools plan for three back-to-school scenarios: in-person classes, distance learning and hybrid scenarios.
The governor’s detailed plan explains the many factors and standards school districts must use in determining which of the three models to use. Each of those models comes with dozens of requirements and recommendations for districts to apply.
The plan’s highest-profile element is its Safe Learning Model Parameters, which uses county-level COVID-19 testing data to determine the number of cases per 10,000 people over 14 days to determine which model districts must apply:
• Counties with up to nine positive cases per 10,000 people in the past 14 days may use in-person learning for all students.
• Counties with 10-19 cases per 10,000 people use in-person learning for elementary students and hybrid learning for secondary students.
• Counties with 20-29 cases per 10,000 people use hybrid learning for all students.
• Counties with 30-49 cases per 10,000 people use hybrid learning for elementary students and distance learning for secondary students.
• Counties with 50 or more cases per 10,000 people must use distance learning for all students.
Two important caveats: Regardless of the model used, all districts must provide an equitable distance-learning option to all families. And the model applied can change as conditions change in county.
Also worth mentioning is the importance of counties continuing to perform widespread testing to help ensure the data driving these decisions is comprehensive, current and credible.
Tip of the iceberg
Of course, selecting the learning model is just the tip the iceberg known as COVID-19.
The state’s health department also is providing districts a separate 18-page guide for addressing the three learning models. This guide dives deeper into issues such as face coverings, social distancing, cleaning, hygiene, busing and more.
Face coverings are required for in-person and hybrid models. “All students, staff, and other people present in school buildings and district offices or riding on school transportation vehicles are required to wear a face covering.”
Still, there are some significant differences. For example, the 6-foot requirement for social distancing is a goal, but it is not required for in-person learning. It is required for hybrid learning, when it must be applied on buses, too.
The in-person and hybrid models require each school to appoint a COVID-19 program coordinator whose role is to “communicate concerns, challenges, and lessons learned related to COVID-19 preventive activities as needed with staff, students/families, school and district leadership, and local health officials.”
Also addressed are requirements and recommendations on cleaning. “Establish a schedule for routine environmental cleaning and disinfection of high-touch surfaces and shared equipment throughout the school day. Increase the frequency of disinfection during high-activity periods.”
Those are just a few of a dozen issues the 2020-2021 Planning Guide for Schools. And even though Walz’s plan does offer substantial details, it does not help districts answer questions such as to how to achieve social distancing in crowded schools, address busing capacity issues or detail who will do those increased cleanings.
Those are the kinds of challenges each district is spending the next several weeks trying to solve. Under the governor’s timeline, they have until Aug. 24, at which point implementation is to begin.
Most districts start classes the day after Labor Day.
Clearly, district administrators and educators have a lot to do this month. On the bright side, they are in control of determining the safest and best way to start their school year.
— St. Cloud Times