ST. PAUL, Minn. (FOX 9) - Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz held a news conference on Sunday, March 15 to announce plans to close Minnesota's K-12 public schools from Wednesday to Friday, March 27 in order to combat COVID-19.
During the address, Walz announced that Minnesota now has 35 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus statewide.
The governor was joined by Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker, Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove and Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm.
“My top priority as Governor is the safety of Minnesotans. As a former teacher, and father of two teenage kids, I’m especially focused on the safety of our children,” said Governor Walz. “I am ordering the temporary closure of schools so educators can make plans to provide a safe learning environment for all Minnesota students during this pandemic. Closing schools is never an easy decision, but we need to make sure we have plans in place to educate and feed our kids regardless of what’s to come.”
The executive order requires the schools to provide care for elementary-age children of health care professionals, first responders, and other emergency workers during previously planned school days to help those workers stay on the job and help fight the coronavirus outbreak.
“There is nothing more important than the health, safety, and well-being of Minnesotans,” said Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan. “This decision was made with children and families in mind, as well as our educators, to best support our schools and educational system in the weeks and months ahead and make sure that we have a plan in place for our kids who rely on school for meals and other critical needs.”
In addition, the executive order helps provide mental health services continuity and provides meals to students in need during the school closures.
“The safety and well-being of our students is always our top priority,” said MDE Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker. “That is why we are committed to creating an education delivery model that can sustain learning, no matter the circumstances. Minnesota has long valued education and we will continue to work with our school leaders to ensure that our students continue to receive the education they need and deserve. Educators are caring, creative people and I am confident they are going to work to meet the needs of our students in these extraordinary times.”
Several Midwestern states have ordered schools closed, including neighboring Wisconsin and South Dakota, amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Last week, Gov. Walz and the Minnesota Department of Health had no plans to cancel classes for primary and high school students. Speaking with members of the media on Thursday, MDH officials said COVID-19 presents less risk to children and closing schools could create unintended disruption.
"In general, individuals 19 and under are at the very lowest risk of COVID-19," explained Minnesota Department of Health Infectious Disease Director Kris Ehresman. "Only two percent of overall cases have occurred in this age group."
Health officials worry closing schools could result in some students losing access to basic nutrition and other valuable resources available at schools. They also want to avoid disrupting the continuity of education for students.
However, MDH says there are steps schools can take to prevent the virus from spreading between students and making its way back home. First, they are recommending everyone, students and adults, take efforts to social distance -- or simply putting buffer zones between you and other people.
"We’ve talked about the six-foot range," explained Ehresman. "If you’re closer than six feet for longer than ten minutes, that’s an exposure."
MINNESOTA'S CORONAVIRUS CASES
Minnesota's number of confirmed COVID-19 cases increased to 35 on Sunday, March 15.
MORE COVID-19 TESTS NEEDED
Gov. Walz is asking the federal government to increase the state’s access to COVID-19 testing kits to a minimum of 15,000 tests per month. As of Saturday, the state has 21 confirmed cases.
In a letter to Vice President Mike Pence, Walz wrote,"As you know, the ability to test and diagnoses cases of COVID-19 is critical to Minnesota’s response and mitigation of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Minnesota, like other states, is deeply concerned about the availability of the testing kits, in addition to ancillary reagents and lab supplies needed to provide testing. There are a variety of components of a COVID-19 test. Kits alone are not enough; we need all necessary components to successfully test."