ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) — Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday set a goal that all schools offer some in-person learning by March 8, citing low test positivity rates and declining hospitalizations in the state as reasons that schools can reopen safely.

“We’re on offense now and it’s our time to take back the things that make life so wonderful for us,” Walz said during a news conference. “It’s time to get our students back in school and we can do that safely.”

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The state is updating its “safe learning plan” so that middle and high schools move forward with in-person or hybrid learning decisions without prior state approval beginning Monday, so long as they follow mitigation strategies like masking and distancing.

But the changes won’t drive a seismic shift. The governor said 86% of elementary school students are already back in-person in some fashion and the Minnesota Department of Education told WCCO roughly 44% of middle and high school students in public school are in a hybrid model and 26% fully in-person.

The plan also isn’t a mandate that schools offer in-person options by March 8, rather an endorsement from the governor that it can happen safely — although, he acknowledged, the move is not absent all risk.

The governor and state health officials cited low positivity rates, hospitalizations nearing pre-pandemic levels, an uptick of vaccinations and the state’s teacher-testing program as factors that informed the new guidance. Walz cheerfully declared that the data doesn’t foretell an imminent spike in infections, though he cautioned the emerging disease variants could upend that.

“When we’re seeing progress, it’s time to move,” he said. “Because the tools are broader now and the knowledge around COVID is better, I’m asking my team to look at … what comes next.”

The governor’s announcement follows new Centers for Disease Control guidance revealed last Friday that federal officials called a road map to reopen. Walz said Minnesota “is a lot further down the road” on that path to safely reopening and the state is “better prepared.”

Deputy Health Commissioner Dan Huff also echoed those comments and said health officials are not seeing data to indicate “significant community spread” is connected to schools.

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“When I first read through the revised CDC guidance I felt, ‘Wow – looks they copied our safe learning plan,’ because a lot of the things that are in the guidance from the CDC are exactly what we in Minnesota have had in our safe learning plan from the very beginning,” Huff said.

Walz vowed to get educators at least one vaccine dose by March 8 and said 25% of them already have at least one shot. He said he’s setting aside 18,000 doses for educators next week.

The CDC, though, doesn’t require vaccinations as a prerequisite to reopening. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor, on CBS This Morning on Wednesday said teachers being vaccinated before returning to school is a “non-workable situation.”

Still, there is some concern among educators about going back to school without being fully vaccinated. Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota — the state’s largest teacher union — said as much in a statement.

“Regardless of today’s announcement, there will still be educators who need the vaccine before they can safely return to their buildings because of local conditions,” Specht said. “There will also be families that won’t be comfortable returning to in-person learning next month. Meeting the needs of everyone won’t be easy and the solutions will look different everywhere.”

Walz said he expects 1 million Minnesotans to have at least one vaccine soon. State data as of Monday shows close to 700,000 people have had the first dose and about 246,000 have been fully vaccinated over the six-week period that inoculations have been underway.

Republicans, who have been pushing for students to be back in the classroom, are proceeding with plans in the Senate Thursday to debate a bill that would strip Walz of his executive powers over school openings and schedules.

“It’s become obvious the main thing standing in the way from a full reopening of schools are the teacher’s unions,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, in a statement. “Their demands to delay in-person instruction is failing kids, parents, and our future.”

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Caroline Cummings