School bus

Mankato Area Public Schools along with all school districts across the state will need to determine whether to hold in-person classes or not based on local COVID-19 infection numbers.

Most students and parents will have to wait longer for a decision on whether their school will reopen for in-person learning in September.

Gov. Tim Walz announced plans Thursday to decide fall formats for public schools on a case-by-case basis depending on the number of COVID-19 cases in each region.

If infection rates hold steady in coming weeks, hybrid scenarios are recommended for schools in several area counties, including Blue Earth and Nicollet. A return to full in-person learning is recommended in some more rural counties in the region.

The governor’s plan sets guidelines but allows districts to opt for a more or less restrictive model. Multiple area school leaders said it likely will be days or even weeks before they come to a decision.

The guidelines encourage school districts to prioritize their youngest and special needs learners for in-person learning.

If schools are fully or partially open, they are also required to give students the option to continue learning from home.

Schools leaders also were told Thursday they are expected to continually monitor infection rates in their counties and be prepared to transition to a new format if the pandemic worsens or wanes in their community.

“This is a localized, data-driven decision approach,” Walz said.

The superintendents of Mankato, St. Peter, New Ulm and Maple River school districts said they appreciate the localized flexibility.

"Today’s announcement from the Governor is very much in line with what they have been sharing all along," St. Peter Supt. Bill Gronseth said. "We understand that different areas of the state are in different stages. It makes sense that the State plans would allow for regional differences."

County-based guidelines

The guidelines are based on the number of COVID-19 cases per 10,000 residents in the county in which a school is located.

If cases are less than 10 per 10,000, a return to full in-person learning is recommended. A hybrid is recommended if cases are between 10 and 49. Distance learning is recommended if cases reach 50 or more per 10,000.

There is no set cutoff for what two-week period schools should use to determine their recommendation.

Using data for the last 14 days, hybrids would be recommended for schools in Blue Earth, Nicollet, Le Sueur, Waseca and Watonwan counties. A return to regular in-person learning would be recommended for Faribault County. Brown and Martin counties would be right on the bubble between in-person and a hybrid.

Under a hybrid, a school and its buses are restricted to half capacity and required to maintain social distancing.

The hybrid learning recommendation is further broken down by grade level depending on infection rates. In-person for elementary and hybrid for secondary is suggested if cases fall between 10-19 per 10,000, a hybrid for all students if there is 20-29 cases per 10,000, and a hybrid for elementary students and distance learning for secondary students if cases are between 30-49 per 10,000.

Based on the last 14 days, Blue Earth, Waseca and Watonwan counties would have hybrid learning for all students. In Nicollet, Sibley and Le Sueur counties, a hybrid would be recommended for secondary students and in-person learning would be for recommended for elementary students — though Nicollet and Sibley counties are both near the cutoff for a full hybrid.

Using Mankato Area Public Schools as an example, Walz said the guidelines will need to be flexible. Special consideration may need to be given because the district in which he once was a teacher has schools in two counties, Walz noted.

“I want people to be clear this guidance is not set in stone,” he said.

Mankato Schools Supt. Paul Peterson said state officials have suggested the district use the data for the county that has the higher infection rate.

For New Ulm Public Schools, which serves portions of three counties, Supt. Jeff Bertrang said they will look at Brown County data because most the students hail from that county.

Maple River Public Schools Supt. Dan Anderson said he will seek even more localized data. He expects infection rates are greatly different in the more rural communities his district serves than the rate in Mankato.

School districts also are encouraged to consider factors including longer-term data trajectories, whether there is an outbreak isolated to a business, and the capacity of their school buildings and ability to maintain social distancing.

If a district wants to adopt a model that is less restrictive than recommended by the guidelines, it is required to consult with state and local health officials and the Minnesota Department of Education.

No decisions yet

Minnesota Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker told school leaders Thursday they can wait up until a week before the start of their school year to announce a model.

Local school superintendents said they will be working to balance making the best-informed decision with giving families and staff enough time to prepare.

In Maple River, Anderson said he hopes to be ready to make an announcement in early August.

The St. Peter School Board will meet on Tuesday to consider a plan. 

In New Ulm, Bertrang said a special School Board meeting is tentatively scheduled for Aug. 10.

“We’re not going to rush this. There are a lot of moving parts,” he said. “We want to make sure we have a plan that makes sense for our community.”

Peterson wasn’t ready to give a potential time line. He said the decision will come from a “consultative process” over coming weeks.

Peterson said he remains optimistic Blue Earth County’s infection rate will continue on a downward trajectory.

Community members who want to see children back in school buildings can do their part, he said, by wearing masks and taking other precautions to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Free Press staff writer Brian Arola contributed to this story.