by CHRIS ROGERS
Under newly released state guidelines, in-person elementary school classes and partially in-person middle and high school classes may be possible in Winona County this fall if the rate of new coronavirus infections holds steady.
Faced with the question of whether schools should teach students in-person, remotely, or via a hybrid of both, Gov. Tim Walz and the leaders of the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) announced today that they would — for the most part — leave that decision up to local school districts. However, the MDH and MDE will advise districts on which option to choose based on how bad the COVID-19 pandemic is in their area and how well they can mitigate the risks of the virus spreading.
“Not all schools look the same, not all parts of our state look the same, so we need to take those considerations in,” Walz said.
A formula released by the MDH provides an initial recommendation for school districts based on the number of new infections in the last 14 days. For counties with 0-10 cases per 10,000 population, in-person learning is recommended for all ages. For counties with 10-20 recent cases per 10,000 population, MDH recommends in-person classes for elementary schools and hybrid learning for secondary schools. For counties with 20 cases per 10,000, hybrid classes are suggested for all ages. For counties with 30-50 cases per 10,000, distance learning is recommended for secondary schools and hybrid learning is recommended for elementary schools. For counties with over 50 cases of COVID-19 per 10,000 population in the last 14 days, MDH advises distance learning for all ages.
Those recommendations are not final decisions, but a starting point for conversations between local school leaders and public health experts, MDH Commissioner Jan Malcolm said.
As of July 30, Winona County had 76 new COVID-19 cases in the last 14 days. Divided by the county’s population, that produces a 14-day case rate per 10,000 people of 15.1. That figure means that, if school were starting tomorrow, the MDH formula would recommend Winona Area Public Schools, Lewiston-Altura Public Schools, and St. Charles Public Schools hold in-person classes for elementary students and a hybrid of in-person and remote instruction for secondary students.
A spreadsheet released by the MDH lists the case rate for Winona County as 14.16. However, that number is based on COVID-19 infection data from early July. Unfortunately, since then, the speed at which new infections have been popping up in Winona County has been accelerating. Winona County averaged less than 2.5 cases per day in the first half of this month and over 5.5 cases per day in the second half.
If the rate of new infections keeps worsening and the 14-day case rate tops 20 cases, it would push Winona County into a category where hybrid, not in-person, learning is recommended for elementary students.
The executive order requires districts to offer distance learning options for all families who want them, regardless of what option it chooses for the majority of its classes. School districts are also required to provide child care to the children of certain essential workers.
The order applies to K-12 public schools and charters, but not private schools or preschools.