ST. PAUL — Minnesota students will finish the school year at home, Gov. Tim Walz, announced Thursday, April 23, as the state continues fighting the coronavirus.
The governor issued an executive order moving the remainder of the school year to distance learning, which students and teachers have been operating from home since March 30.
Walz also announced a gradual move to get 100,000 Minnesotans in noncritical industrial, manufacturing and office settings return to work on April 27. Under the state's guidance, any workers that could remain at home for work were asked to do so, but workplaces that could set in place social distancing, hygiene and disinfecting practices and worker health screenings could be allowed to resume business.
Workers, bosses or businesses that returned to work without a safety plan or forced workers to return to unapproved environments would face fines and jail time under the order.
The moves are the latest efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while aiming to help the state get closer to a pre-COVID-19 normal, Walz said. The University of Minnesota, Mayo Clinic and other health care systems around the state a day prior announced a partnership to help administer and process as many as 20,000 COVID-19 tests a day in Minnesota, a significant jump from current testing levels.
Walz and state health officials said increasing testing rates could help give the state a better idea of how pervasive the illness is in Minnesota and help develop a timeline for getting more Minnesotans back to work as well as for the future of the stay at home order.
For now, Walz said it was in the best interest of students' and families' safety to keep children learning from home. But that decision wasn't made without considering the hardship for parents, teachers and students missing out on critical learning and milestones. He addressed the Class of 2020 in his daily press briefing saying no other graduating class had been asked to make the sacrifices they had.
"It feels like that's been taken and it has from you," Walz said. "You will not be defined by staying home and missing proms or missing graduations. You will be defined by understanding how interconnected our world is."
The Minnesota State High School League on Thursday also announced that all athletics and activities scheduled for spring season would be canceled.
Walz said it wasn't clear whether students would return to school in the fall and Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said the department was still assessing what education plans would look like over the summer and into the next school year. Ricker said academic requirements may need to be reviewed in the fall to determine how students have fared during the distance learning period.
The announcements come as the Department of Health on Thursday announced that 2,942 Minnesotans of 51,548 tested were confirmed to have COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, and 200 had died from the illness or complications from it. State officials say the total likely undercounts the number of Minnesotans that have or have had COVID-19.4
Education Minnesota, the state's largest teachers union, and Democratic-Farmer-Labor lawmakers said they supported the move to keep students learning from home for the rest of the school year but said the Walz administration should take steps to address disparities in distance learning due to problems with access and support.
“Distance learning is putting incredible stress on parents, students and educators. It’s widening disparities by wealth, race and geography," Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said in a news release. "I hope educators can use these last few weeks to wind down the academics while increasing attention on the mental and emotional health of our students. At the same time, we need to plan for addressing the inequities this crisis has made even worse.”
Walz said the administration was aiming to address inequities in distance learning outcomes in the coming days.
Some noncritical workers allowed to start Monday
Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove said some noncritical businesses under the stay at home order would be allowed to return to work as early as Monday, April 27, if they set in place guidelines for operating safely and screen workers for symptoms of illness.
Business owners must write up the plans or utilize a template issued by the department and make those protocols available to employees and customers where relevant. Most customer-facing businesses would not be covered under the proposal. But the industrial, manufacturing and office settings sides of those businesses could get back up and running. Workers that can work from home are still required to do so under the order and plans to get workers back must allow sick workers to stay home.
Over time, additional sectors would be allowed to return to work, Grove and Walz said, but for now, both urged business owners and workers to be cautious.
"We are turning the dial slowly toward predictability to make sure we get this right," Grove said.
Walz over the last several weeks has issued executive orders shuttering businesses, bars, dine-in restaurants and other places of public amusement to limit the potential spread of the virus. Those orders and another order to stay at home except for essential needs have allowed the state to build up hospital bed capacity and personal protective equipment ahead of an expected peak in new cases.
And they have also led to an unprecedented surge in unemployment insurance filings. Since March 16, 536,411 Minnesotans have filed for the insurance. Businesses around the state had prepared protocols to safely get back to work while protecting the health of workers and customers.
"We've done all that has been asked of us by our governor and we're extremely excited, almost to tears," Red Wing-based Riedell Skates President Bob Riegelman said.
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Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 hotline: 651-201-3920.
COVID-19 discrimination hotline: 833-454-0148
Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 website: Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) website.