'Unusual' School Year Starts for Many Minnesota Students Amid Pandemic

'Unusual' School Year Starts for Many Minnesota Students Amid Pandemic Click to Enlarge Photo: Image by EB Pilgrim from Pixabay

Many Minnesota students started the school year Tuesday, including at Sartell-St. Stephen ISD 784, St. Cloud ISD 742 and Sauk Rapids-Rice ISD 47. In a press briefing, Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker acknowledged that this school year is "unusual," but said schools are ready to welcome back students through one of three learning models: in-person, hybrid and distance.

"The pandemic has forced us to change many aspects of our everyday life, but what this pandemic did not take away from us are our shared values about educating students," Ricker said.

Out of the 426 school districts and charter schools that have reported their learning model to the state education department, 63 percent chose a hybrid instruction model this year. At least 53 schools statewide are starting the school year distance-only, Ricker said.

"If all Minnesotans work together and keep our decisions student-centered, I am confident that we will have a safe and successful school year," Ricker said.

Families can help prevent COVID-19 spread by wearing masks and social distancing, Minnesota Department of Health infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann said. She emphasized that students, staff and parents should stay home if they are feeling sick or waiting for COVID-19 test results.

"If you've had a close contact with a confirmed case of COVID in your home or in other activities, stay out of school for the full 14 days of quarantine," Ehresmann said. "Remember: You can't test out of quarantine."

The start of school comes as Minnesota has seen 81,608 COVID-19 cases throughout the pandemic; 387 cases were confirmed statewide Monday.

If a student, teacher or staff member tests positive for COVID-19, that does not mean a building or district has to shift its instruction model. Deputy education commissioner Heather Mueller said those decisions should happen on a school-by-school basis.

"We have made it very clear, I think, in our recommendations and the state's learning plan that ... there's a breadth of considerations that we take into account," when COVID-19 cases are detected in a school, Mueller said.

It is known that COVID-19 can be spread asymptomatically. Ehresmann said asymptomatic transmission is an issue, however, the chief concern is acting on what people can control: staying home and getting tested if they have COVID-19 symptoms.

"We acknowledge that asymptomatic transmission is an issue with COVID, and it certainly has presented challenges with transmission," Ehresmann said. "But, you can't identify asymptomatic transmission unless you're testing everyone every day."

More details about Minnesota's Safe Learning Plan for the 2020-2021 academic year can be found on the Department of Education's website.