As the COVID-19 Delta variant has ripped through southern U.S. states and caused a national surge of cases, Minnesota and the southwest Twin Cities metro area have been no exception. While nowhere near the peaks of 2020, health officials in Scott and Carver counties are keeping close tabs on case numbers and the future.
When Gov. Tim Walz lifted the state’s mask mandate on July 1, COVID-19 cases were on a steep downward trend, thanks to the three vaccines that have been widely available to the public since spring 2021. However, as COVID cases have surged upward again since early July, Scott County Public Health Director Lisa Brodsky sees a worrying trend.
“I believe that we’re going to see a continued rise in cases. I have no reason to believe that it’s going to be different than it was previously, though it may be worse because we know the Delta variant is much more contagious and carries a higher viral load,” Brodsky said.
Unlike in the early months of the pandemic, Brodsky estimated that around one in four new Scott County COVID-19 cases have been in people age 19 or younger since July.
“It’s a very interesting pattern compared to last time. We have hardly any seniors,” Brodsky said. “I attribute that to the fact that we have 99% of our seniors vaccinated.”
Over in Carver County, public health officials have seen fairly steady COVID-19 case numbers. With 72 new cases as of Aug. 6, the county is on track to surpass its July case count of 131, but that’s still miles below its 2021 peak of 1,387 cases in March, according to the Carver County COVID tracker.
Carver County Public Health Director Richard Scott attributes the lower case count to the area’s high vaccination rate.
“Nearly 62,000 of our residents have received at least one vaccine dose; more than 73% of eligible residents 12 years and older have received at least one vaccine dose,” Scott wrote in an email. “We do know that we have areas of the County with lower vaccination rates, and we’re working with our partners to bring the vaccine to those areas to make it more accessible for residents living in those areas and who want to receive it.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the Delta variant is more contagious than the original strain of the SARS COVID-19 virus that began to spread globally in early 2020. Other variants have emerged, but Delta is noticeably more infectious: From June to July of 2021, it jumped from causing 57% of infections in Minnesota to over 75%, said Scott Smith, a Minnesota Department of Health public information officer, in an email. Nationally, the variant caused around 83% of COVID cases in the U.S. on July 31 — a massive leap from the beginning of June, when it made up just 8.6% of national cases.
“This variant is much more contagious and is spreading rapidly in the United States, particularly among people who are not yet vaccinated,” Smith wrote. “Wherever there are low vaccination rates, people remain more susceptible to the Delta variant as well as all strains of the SARS CoV2 virus.”
The good news is, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are still “powerfully effective” at preventing COVID-19 infections, Scott added. They also reduce the severity of rare breakthrough cases, or cases in people who are more than two weeks out from their final shot. Breakthroughs make up just 0.01% of infections in Minnesota, with 99.9% of new cases appearing in unvaccinated people, Smith said.
Brodsky and Scott recommended that all eligible residents get vaccinated as a first line of defense and follow CDC guidelines to protect themselves and their neighbors: Wear masks in public indoor places, wash your hands, and stay home if you’re sick.
“I think we declared victory too soon,” Brodsky said. “It’s not over, we’re not out of the woods, and the more people get vaccinated, the sooner we can declare victory.”
If you've heard the term "critical race theory" recently, you are not alone. The term seems to have appeared out of nowhere this past year during political rallies and has since become a hot-button issue in school districts nationwide.
Although the academic discussion point hasn't caused any heated conversations in the Prior Lake Savage Area Schools District, residents have shared concerns over recent equity and inclusion initiatives at school board meetings this summer.
In response, school officials want to make one thing clear: critical race theory has not and will not be taught at PLSAS.
"We don't teach critical race theory in our schools, that's why we don't talk about it. That's kind of the bottom line," said Kristi Mussman, director of communications at PLSAS. "It's not a part of Minnesota academic standards — it's a theory used in law schools, not K-12 education."
Mussman went on to say that the PLSAS curriculum and instruction follows standards established by the Minnesota Department of Education and is guided by the district’s strategic plan.
"One of our core values in that plan is respect — which is about valuing ourselves, each other and our world across all differences," said Mussman. "One of the goals in our strategic plan calls for us to increase measurable student learning and reduce achievement gaps as we provide equitable student opportunities through personalized learning and student engagement.
"We will continue to promote a culture of respect and inclusion for all students, staff and families and will remain committed to equity and improvement so that all students can achieve educational success."
Superintendent Teri Staloch said critical race theory is just that, a theory.
"According to the Minnesota School Board Association, their definition says critical race theory is a discipline and analytical tool that began in law schools in the 1970s as a tool to help law students think critically about the impact on historical and present day racism in the legal system," said Staloch. "In the 1990s some colleges started using critical race theory to help aspiring school administrators and teachers better understand inequities with the goal of improving student performance."
Staloch said several people have a misunderstanding of what critical race theory is and claiming that schools are teaching it when in reality they are teaching about strategies that help students learn.
"I think that's what we're seeing nationwide. It's certainly a nationwide conversation and I think we're a little confused by it," said Staloch. "I think it's a distraction to the work we're actually doing. There's no reason to have a conversation about critical race theory in public education. I don't believe there's a school district in the country that teaches it. So, I don't know why it's getting the press or why we're spending our time speaking about it — but why some parents are upset is because they think we're doing something that we're not."
Staloch added that PLSAS is committed to all students which has been a long standing tradition in the district for years, long before the critical race theory conversation starting taking place.
"We've got a board who is absolutely committed to the work and just passed a board resolution about it," said Staloch. "We've also hired an administrator who is going to help us get better so that we can close the gaps and we can ensure kids regardless of their culture, age, race or their ability are wildly successful and feel wildly loved here."
An equity and inclusion resolution was passed by the board in January that states the district is fully committed to developing and sustaining an inclusive and anti-racist school community where all students, parents, families, staff and community members are welcomed and valued not based on their race, ethnicity, gender, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, linguistic identity or socio-economic status.
"This was approved by the board in January and we have Achievement and Integration Plan dollars. We had an increase in those funds and so now we're an Achievement and Integration district," said Staloch. "We work with Shakopee and Jordan on that. With an increase in some of those funds, we prioritize having a leader who can help us hone our strategies so that ultimately we can do the work of closing achievement gaps."
Achievement and Integration work is based around providing students and staff with cultural competency skills and closing the achievement gap.
Sam Ouk, Director of Equity and Inclusion and the new administrator Staloch mentioned, said his position is new at PLSAS but the work is certainly not.
"The work of equity and inclusion is definitely not new. It's already existing in many school districts. Our understanding is that we have to be able to meet our students where they're at and then being able to move them forward. So, that understanding of equity and providing that fairness to our students has been there for a really long time," said Ouk. "I view my role coming into the district as being able to help connect to all our stakeholders that are there to provide that vision and that guidance."
Ouk also said he's also surprised that the critical race theory discussion took off like it did.
"To be honest, growing up as an immigrant and refugee myself, I've been in the work of diversity and equity inclusion for a long time and I've never used that acronym 'CRT' before," said Ouk. "So, I'm just as surprised as anyone else that all of a sudden this is coming out now."
Mussman and Staloch reiterated that PLSAS teaches the Minnesota academic standards in its curriculum.
"My expectation that we, because we are an E-STEM district, and because who we are as an educational system, we want kids to critically think. There are multiple perspectives on history and I think over the last many years that has been a change," said Staloch. "It used to be that the only thing we would teach in our schools is that Christopher Columbus discovered America. As we've learned, there are false narratives that have been taught and many of us have been taught. So, the academic standards are we use multiple different resources to help provide perspective on that."
Staloch also said she thinks it's important that all students have a chance to see themselves and others in the curriculum and that they get an opportunity to understand and have the ability to share their experiences to better understand one another.
"The history of slavery has been taught in multiple ways over the years. I think it is important that we really think about the basis of what we're teaching and how we're teaching it, what we're not teaching and why we're not teaching it and how we're ensuring every student feels supported, respected and loved in our schools," she said.
Ouk said it all goes back to the district's mission and strategic directions which are goals that guide educational programs, services and applied resources.
"I think our strategic direction really calls out what we feel is really important to help our students and what our job is and what our function is," said Ouk. "So, I think that is the format for the work that we do. As a school district, as any school district, we want our kids to be critical thinkers and that goes across the subject areas. I think that's important to teach learners to develop critical thinkers across the board and it will only help our students grow and help our community grow and develop."
Staloch concluded that although there are school boards in other districts who have been very vocal about critical race theory, she wants to let parents know that is not the case in PLSAS.
"There are other board meetings in other districts that have been very vocal and contingent but we haven't had that yet," said Staloch. "And certainly people who want to speak, they speak. But I'm optimistic that we have an educated community on this matter."