ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) — Gov. Tim Walz relaxed state rules governing schools’ reopening plans, making it easier for districts to allow middle and high school students to come back to the classroom.

Walz made the announcement during a Wednesday news conference and urged all schools to offer some sort of in-person learning option by March 8, though he said it isn’t a requirement.

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This means some schools may still be fully online-only in two-and-a-half weeks.

“It’s not a, ‘You’re going to be back by then,’ — that doesn’t work,” Walz said Wednesday. “And that’s not partnership on that. But I think setting that goal and an expectation that you will start to see that start to happen.”

The governor cited low test positivity rates, declining hospitalizations and an uptick in vaccinations statewide and among teachers as reasons he endorsed reopening.

This comes as states across the U.S. have debates about what schooling looks like in the coming weeks and months as the pandemic continues to upend education.

How Does Minnesota Compare To Neighboring States Wisconsin And Iowa?

Wisconsin is a local control state, a spokesman for the state’s education agency told WCCO, which means local districts and school boards are making their own decisions about what learning model is best.

School districts and boards there never needed the approval of the state to execute their learning plans, though the state did put out guidance schools could follow to reopen safely. In Minnesota, before Walz relaxed the rules, school districts needed to consult state education and health officials with their learning models.

“It’s kind of all over the map with what instructional model is best,” said Chris Bucher, a communications specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, said.

Some schools in Wisconsin are fully in-person and hybrid. Others are remaining online for the foreseeable future, like Milwaukee Public Schools, which will begin transitioning to in-person learning for younger grades in mid-April. There isn’t a reporting requirement from the state to keep track of what learning models each district is following, so there isn’t data available on how many students are back in the classroom.

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Eighty-six percent of Minnesota students in kindergarten through fifth grade are either fully in-person or hybrid, according to the governor’s office. For middle and high school students — before the governor’s announcement — 44% were hybrid and 26% in-person with the remaining 30% distance learning.

In Iowa, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds this summer required schools to offer in-person learning at least half the time with a process for schools to apply for temporary waivers for remote learning based on infection rates in the community.

But beginning this week, all schools are required — by a new law approved by the GOP-controlled legislature last month — to offer a 100% in-person learning option that parents can choose for their children.

Many schools were already offering in-person options. Schools can still request to temporarily move online from the Department of Education, according to The Des Moines Register.

All three governors in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa have the power to order schools to close during the pandemic emergency. (In Wisconsin, the Department of Health Services has the authority to close schools due to infectious disease outbreaks like an epidemic, but Gov. Tony Evers directed the agency to close schools via executive order last March.)

Senate Republicans Vote To Strip Gov. Tim Walz Of Powers To Close Schools, Underscoring Partisan Divide

All Senate Republicans and a few defecting Democrats approved a bill on Thursday that would strip Walz of his emergency powers to change school schedules or order schools to close.

The GOP believes children should be back in the classroom and they argue that decisions on school reopenings should rest solely with local districts. It would not require schools to offer in-person learning.

“It’s time to find a way to move beyond COVID,” said Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka. “We can debate at long length about how many powers the governor should retain but if there’s an easy one, it’s this one because there’s already duly elected people in charge.”

It was an impassioned debate that lasted hours. Ultimately it passed on a 40-27 vote, with four Democrats and two independents voting for the legislation, which is all but certain to languish in the DFL-controlled House.

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“Regardless of who the governor is, [his or her] authority to act during an emergency should not be revoked that is not responsible,” said. Sen Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood. “Has there been controversy? Yes. All our lives are disrupted but [schools say] ‘we need resources.’”

Caroline Cummings