Walz expects all Minnesota schools to offer some form of in-person learning by March 8

Gov. Tim Walz says all Minnesota schools should bring students back to the classroom at least part-time by March 8, pointing to low coronavirus infection numbers as justification for the move.

It's not clear how many kids will get back into classrooms immediately. Around 85 percent of elementary schools and 70 percent of middle and high schools already offer in-person learning at least some of the time, and Walz's March 8 target date is not a mandate for those schools that haven't brought students back yet.

"I think we’re in position to make this move that mitigates the risk as close to zero as we could get it," Walz told reporters Wednesday. "We did not have this type of testing and we didn't have the vaccine just 60 days ago. That's a big game-changer."

The first-term Democratic governor is facing pressure from multiple sides. Republicans who want schools fully reopened immediately said his plan didn't go far enough. Teachers' unions, which were a key base of support during Walz's successful 2018 run for governor, said it would be hard to meet the governor's timeline.

Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers' union, offered a lukewarm response to Walz's announcement.

"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," union president Denise Specht said in a statement. "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."

In an email to staff Wednesday afternoon, Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Ed Graff did not commit to reopening the district's middle and high schools by the governor's March 8 target date.

Middle and high-school students in Minneapolis and St. Paul have not returned, amid protests from teachers' unions in those cities. The governor said he would not force teachers back to the classroom in big districts where the most opposition has arisen.

"We’ll cross that bridge when we get there," Walz said, when asked what he would do if teachers don't want to return by March. "I think there has been a goodwill effort to work together. You have watched this (battles between unions and governments) play out across the country. It has not played out here." 

Asked why he did not include penalties for districts that did not reopen by March 8, Walz said he was seeking "partnerships" and not "teeth."

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said Republicans would move ahead with a Thursday morning vote to strip the governor's ability to restrict school openings using his emergency powers.

"When we talk about open, we’re not talking about one day a week, which is part of what he’s talking about. We think it should be five days a week, and we think the science is on our side," Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said in an interview. He said Walz's announcement "doesn’t really do a lot more than where (schools) are right now."

The announcement is a reversal for Walz, who said five days earlier that while he wanted to see 100 percent of students back in classrooms this spring, he would not set a target date. At the time, he said doing so would be a "cookie-cutter" approach.

The governor pledged that most teachers would have at least one dose of vaccine by March 8. His office said almost 25 percent of teachers have already gotten a shot.  Next week, 18,000 vaccine doses will be offered to teachers at state vaccine sites and more through other providers.

Walz's new plan comes with new mandates for schools. For example, middle and high schools must track where students sit in the lunchroom every day to help contact tracing in the case of an outbreak.

All students must maintain three feet of physical distance, and the recommendation is six feet for middle and high school students. 

If 5 percent of students are absent with flu-like or COVID-like symptoms in a single week, the school must consult with health officials about returning to a more restrictive learning model.

State health officials are strongly encouraging students and families who are learning in person, in a hybrid model or participating in sports and activities to get tested for COVID-19 at least every two weeks.