Minnesota students return, most schools in hybrid learning

Gov. Tim Walz elbow bumps a student returning to school in Wyoming, Minn. on the first day of school statewide.

Gov. Tim Walz bumped elbows with Wyoming Elementary School students as they got off the bus Tuesday on the first day of an uncertain school year in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

"This feels for the first time in those six months of us seeing what the end can look like if we stick with it," Walz told reporters outside the school.

Of the 426 districts that have reported to the state Department of Education, 267 districts, or 63 percent, are starting the year in some kind of hybrid learning model. Of the rest, 106 districts, or 25 percent, are starting with all in-person classes. The other 53 districts, or 12 percent, are all online.

Yet there is no guarantee that school districts will finish the year in the same format as they're starting it. Some administrators have had to change plans in just the past few weeks because of changing virus conditions in their local communities, state health officials said.

Positivity rates are increasing in neighboring Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota and Wisconsin. Minnesota has so far been an outlier where positivity rates have increased much more slowly.

Steve Massey, the superintendent at Forest Lake Area Schools, said he hoped virus rates would remain low enough that there would be students in the classroom all year because of the "powerful" effect that has on student learning. In Massey's district, elementary students are in classrooms full-time, while older kids are doing a mix of online and in-person learning.

"We’ve communicated with our families and staff," Massey said. "We’re ready to move if we need to, and we’re monitoring very closely."

The Minnesota Department of Health has been monitoring districts for outbreaks since Aug. 1, at the tail end of summer school and as preparations built for the start of fall classes. There have been 236 positive cases in that time period, with 81 percent of them among staff, Minnesota infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann told reporters on a conference call.

The cases have mostly been one affected person in a school, which is not enough to force a district to shut down its classrooms, she said.

Health officials begged parents Tuesday to keep their students home if someone in their household shows symptoms of the virus.

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

Every Minnesota school district will get a share of $250 million in federal money earmarked for coronavirus prevention efforts. The funding is meant to purchase masks, disinfecting supplies, protective gear and shields, cover increased operational costs and provide support to students and families. There is broad flexibility on how to use it.

Many school district administrators have already finished applications, and some are starting to draw their share of the pot, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education said.