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School COVID decisions remain local, state guidance minimal

The Minnesota Education Commissioner speaks to what role, or input, government officials at the state level have over big COVID-19 decisions surrounding schools.

MINNESOTA, USA — Several local school districts have announced changes to classroom instruction due to the transmission of COIVD-19 in recent days. But while some - like Burnsville, Eagan, Savage - are electing to go to distance learning for the next few days, others like South Washington County Schools are planning strict classroom quarantine procedures

That has some parents wondering what role, or input, the state has as these big decisions are made. KARE 11 reporter Kent Erdahl sat down with Minnesota Education Commissioner, Heather Mueller to find out. Here is part of their candid conversation. 

Kent Erdahl: "When we see decisions like this, what's the level of communication like between the districts and the state right now?"

Commissioner Mueller: "Our school leaders are using the information that they have, and they are partnering, I'm sure, with their local public health - as well as their school leaders and school community - to really make decisions that are in the best interest of their students and their families and their staff."

Erdahl: "Is there a level of communication though, as they make these decisions, with the state department of education?"

Mueller: "There is not (communication) between the state department of education and school districts about their decisions, no."

Though District 191 (Burnsville, Eagan, Savage) didn't mention the Department of Education in its announcement about moving to distance learning, it did cite communication with the state.

"We’re making this decision in consultation with health experts in the Minnesota Department of Health, as well as in Dakota and Scott counties."

KARE 11 reached out to MDH for more information about the type of consultation it may provide to districts right now. A spokesperson said MDH is "strongly encouraging" schools to follow its ten-page, Best Practice Recommendations for COVID-19 Prevention in Schools for the 2021-22 School Year. The document does not offer guidelines or thresholds for when case numbers or transmission might necessitate a change to distance learning.

The state does require schools to report COVID-19 cases, but changes in instruction are not part of the reporting.

Erdahl: "Is the state tracking districts or school buildings that are on distance learning, hybrid or in-person?"

Mueller: "No, we are not tracking it this year because, again, it is a local decision."

Erdahl: "Do you foresee a point at which the state might have to be involved or is that just not on the table at all this year?"

Mueller: "At this point in time there are no options for a state mandate because there is not an emergency order. We are working to provide as many opportunities as possible, whether that's through vaccinations, whether that's through testing... really to provide as much support as we can without having a mandate."

For now MDE can say 70% of schools have ordered free COVID-19 tests provided by the state, and 88% have accepted grants for COVID testing programs. You can see which districts have opted in and out here.

But support for schools looking for help in the classroom remains elusive.

Erdahl: "We've seen the Governor enlist federal help for hospitals right now because of their staffing issues. Is there anything on that level, or even close to it, in terms of helping staff some of these districts that say, we just can't do it right now?"

Mueller: "At this point in time, we have not heard of any specific federal programming that would be able to help support in schools and what that looks like. We know that there has been a time coming where we have fewer and fewer people going into education, and so the pandemic exacerbated this."

Most of the districts announcing changes to instruction - including Burnsville, Eagan, Savage - have cited staffing problems as a factor in switching to distance learning.

Commissioner Mueller said the state is trying to find creative solutions to that big staffing problem - both in the short term and in the long term - but so far she says there just aren't many answers.