ST. PAUL — Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday, Feb. 17, announced a March 8 target for getting all Minnesota middle and high school students back in the classroom for some in-person instruction.

The push comes as the state ramps up its vaccination rates and as COVID-19 positivity rates and hospitalizations decline. And it follows a growing public push to get students back to school to mitigate mental health struggles and learning loss spurred by long-term distance learning.

The plan would let more schools reopen to secondary students starting Monday, Feb. 22, with additional personal protective equipment, social distancing, documenting of seating arrangements for contact tracing and testing in place. And Walz said the state would work in partnership with teachers, administrators, parents and local leaders to get students in for at least part-time in-classroom instruction early next month.

Students will still be able to opt for distance learning if their schools move to in-person or hybrid instruction models. And those attending in-person classes, whether full-time or in a hybrid model along with those participating in school sports or activities, will be encouraged to take a COVID test twice a month to prevent the possible spread of the illness.

"I asked a couple of times for us to buckle down and have a goal-line stand, well we're on offense now. And it's our time to take back the things that make life so wonderful for us," Walz said. "It's time to get our students back in school and we can do that safely."

Newsletter signup for email alerts

As of Tuesday, 85% of kindergarten through eighth-grade classes had resumed at least part-time classroom instruction and the state's COVID-19 transmission rate among teachers was 0.37%.

State health officials said that with more than 940,000 vaccine doses administered in Minnesota and with the state's COVID positivity rate and hospitalizations trending down, more students could safely resume classes. Around 25% of Minnesota teachers had received a COVID-19 vaccine as of this week and state officials said they were prioritizing additional doses for educators and school staff.

Next week, 18,000 doses are set to be administered to those groups, they said.

Walz said schools or districts that can't or won't get to in-person learning for older students by the March 8 deadline wouldn't face a penalty.

"It is not a mandate on them. It gives them the tools," Walz told reporters. The governor followed a question about whether he'd have a difficult time convincing Minneapolis and St. Paul teachers to resume in-person instruction saying, "we'll cross each of those bridges when they come."

Officials didn't immediately issue guidance on whether larger events like graduation ceremonies or proms might be able to take place this spring.

RELATED:

Right now, school district officials decide whether to allow in-person teaching, distance-learning or a combination of the two based on infection rates in the surrounding community and advice from health officials.

That practice would continue under the new guidance but it wouldn't be the only factor determining whether a school should remain in one phase of instruction or transition. Health officials will also evaluate reported illnesses at individual schools and a school will get flagged if 5% or more of their population reports influenza or COVID-19 symptoms. At that point, school leaders and state health officials would discuss next steps.

Limited closures or quarantines could help prevent outbreaks in schools, health officials said. The new guidance allows for a transition from distance learning to hybrid or in-person instruction without a rolling start.

"If you hit this, this conversation begins," Assistant Commissioner of Health Dan Huff said. "It means we have to take a deeper dive and we need to have a conversation between the school district and our professionals and make sure we're doing the best to protect kids and mitigate the risk while keeping schools as open as they can be."

The news of additional reopenings drew mixed reviews on Wednesday, with superintendents, students, parents and Democratic lawmakers saying they were glad to hear the news. Republican lawmakers and the state's largest teacher's union, meanwhile, raised concerns about the proposal.

GOP lawmakers who've pushed for fully reopening schools and other sectors for months said the proposal didn't go far enough. Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, chairs the Senate Education Committee and said the move was "a weak attempt to get some good PR without upsetting the teachers’ union."

Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said that teachers share the goal of getting safely back into the classroom but said some districts and charters that had yet to reopen for in-person would require more resources and staffing to meet CDC guidelines.

“Regardless of today’s announcement, there will still be educators who need the vaccine before they can safely return to their buildings because of local conditions," Specht said. "There will also be families that won’t be comfortable returning to in-person learning next month. Meeting the needs of everyone won’t be easy and the solutions will look different everywhere.”

Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter @bydanaferguson, call 651-290-0707 or email dferguson@forumcomm.com