Sources: Minnesota education officials preparing to take more regional approach to back-to-school plans

WINONA, Minn. (WKBT)– An announcement from Minnesota Department of Education in the coming days could change what school looks like this fall. According to local health and education officials, the state is preparing to tell districts what the ongoing risk for COVID-19 in their region would mean for their plans.

To discussion to send students back to school or not is challenging. Some families might be hesitant.

“Their concerns are valid,” said Karen Saness.

Saness isn’t just the Winona County Health and Human Services Director, she’s also a parent to a 16-year-old.

“I’m not in favor of sending her back to school,” Saness said, during a press conference Friday.

But how to plan for that? The answer could be clearer next Thursday. That’s when state education officials are expected to make an announcement about the next school year.

“My understanding is that it will be done more on a regional basis,” said Annette Freiheit, superintendent for Winona Area Public Schools.

Mary Cathryn Ricker

Minnesota Education Commissioner
Mary Cathryn Ricker. Courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Education

Earlier this summer, Minnesota’s Department of Education (MDE) asked districts to come up with three plans for next school year. They should have a plan for either all in-person learning, a hybrid of in-person and distance learning, or all distance learning. Freiheit told News 8 Now that during a conference call with Minnesota Education Commissioner Cathryn Ricker this Thursday, state officials said they will use more localized data to see which of those plans to use.

“Because what we have here in Winona could have us in one scenario and in Rochester, their situation could be different and they could have to be in a different scenario,” Freiheit said.

Guidance from the Minnesota Department of Health released in June said the state agency, along with the Minnesota Department of Education, “will determine and announce the scenario model under which schools may reopen for the 2020-21 school year based on state COVID-19 metrics by the week of July 27.” But it is not clear if they would be using a more localized approach or state approach for this determination.

Even if state officials tell a district they can use one of the three plans, educators would have to be prepared to change at any time, according to Freiheit. For instance, if the state believes an area is considered high risk, they might have to start with distance learning.

“But as it starts to dial back down or improve, they could say, ‘Well, now you’re going to open with a hybrid,'” Freiheit said.

But parents shouldn’t panic, the health department believes, based on what they’re hearing from the education department, families will still be able to make their own decisions.

“There’s going to be flexibility and options for families,” Saness said.

With the situation rapidly evolving, for the district, this just means they’ll have to establish good relationships with families to navigate any uncertainty or changes to the plan.

News 8 Now has contacted the Minnesota Department of Education for comment. We have not yet heard back from a spokesperson.