Gov. Tim Walz

Middle and high schools in Minnesota will be allowed to fully reopen as early as Monday under new guidance from Gov. Tim Walz, even if county coronavirus case rates remain high.

Middle and high schools in Minnesota will be allowed to fully reopen as early as Monday under new guidance from Gov. Tim Walz, even if county coronavirus case rates remain high.

Under the updated guidance posted online Wednesday, secondary schools can operate at partial or full capacity as long as they follow additional strategies for mitigating the spread of the coronavirus.

Those additional measures include encouraging students to get tested for the virus every two weeks and a recommendation that schools maintain six feet of distance between secondary students, whenever possible.

“Governor Walz expects all schools to offer their students some form of in-person learning by March 8,” Walz’s office said in a news release.

However, schools providing in-person instruction also must continue to make distance learning an option for students, at least through the end of this school year.

The updated guidance also addresses when schools may have to return to distance learning: Rather than focusing on county case rates, schools should consider pulling back on in-person instruction when more than 5 percent of staff and students are absent with flu or coronavirus symptoms in a single week.

The state’s new Safe Learning Plan also removes the requirement that schools reopen in phases. They’ll be allowed to bring all students back at once instead of only three grades every two weeks.

The new guidance around social distancing differs by grade level. It says that for elementary schools, at least “three feet … is strongly recommended.”

For middle and high schools, “students must maintain six feet of physical distance from one another throughout the school day whenever feasible; when six feet of distancing cannot be met, a minimum of three feet … must be maintained.”

Secondary schools also must keep records on where students sit during lunch in order to support contact tracing in case of an exposure. Those schools are “strongly encouraged” to maintain six feet between students during meals and to have them eat in smaller groups than usual.

Many existing mitigation measures remain in place for all schools, including the mandatory wearing of face masks by students and staff and participation in an optional, biweekly workplace testing program for staff.

The guidance says schools no longer must maintain social distancing once their counties see 10 or fewer new coronavirus cases over two weeks per 10,000 residents. As of last Thursday, six Minnesota counties have case rates below that threshold.

Wednesday’s updated guidance marks the second major change since the start of the school year. Walz in December said elementary schools could fully reopen starting Jan. 18, citing evidence that young children are less likely to spread the virus.

Middle and high schools should be able to safely operate if students and staff wear masks and maintain six feet of social distancing, according to new guidelines issued Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, as long as six feet of distancing is expected, many Minnesota middle and high schools will be unable to bring all of their students back to school every day.

With Wednesday’s update, middle and high schools no longer will have to wait for county case rates to drop before inviting students back to class. Under previous state guidance, as of Thursday, 24 of 87 counties, including Dakota and Scott, had case rates high enough that middle and high schools would have been discouraged from offering in-person instruction.

Although some students prefer learning from home, schools across the country have reported serious declines in student engagement and achievement during distance learning.

Both Walz and President Joe Biden have proposed major expansions of summer school programs to get students back on track.