Gov. Walz issues new school guidance, but it falls short of what’s needed

Governor Walz has issued an executive order “authorizing the Commissioner of Education to take action to improve the education of Minnesota students during the 2020-2021 school year.”

Included in the EO:

  • a call upon school districts and charter schools to “prioritize the safe provision of in-person instruction and services to students with disabilities” if the school is operating in a distance or hybrid learning model and the students require services that cannot be provided in a distance learning model;
  • a call that “strongly encourages” school districts and charter schools to “ensure that students have access to mental health and telehealth services and supports on their school-issued devices” and “ensure that such services are fully accessible on students’ school-issued devices”;
  • further guidance that school districts and charter schools must provide free child care to children of workers in “Tier I” industries (such as health care, law enforcement, food and agriculture, judicial branch, education, or child care) in which no parent or guardian working in one of those fields is at home;
  • an extra 30 minutes per day for teacher preparation to provide instruction to students in distance learning or a hybrid learning model;
  • up to five instructional days to prepare and switch the instructional model used or to adjust the current learning model, which will count as instructional days even though students are not receiving instruction.

Where is the guidance to schools to prioritize in-person instruction for all students because data show that schools are not the major super-spreaders once feared to be?

Where are the references to the growing evidence that schools can open safely with reasonable precautions and that it’s time to stop politicizing COVID and return students to classrooms where it make sense to do so because their health and wellness depend on it?

Where is the guidance to “follow the science” that, according to multiple studies, shows no significant transmission of the virus among children or from students to teachers?

We know that continued school closures will only further exacerbate academic achievement gaps and economic and health disparities, and disproportionately harm low-income students and students of color. Here’s what else we know, adds Dr. Chester E. Finn, Jr. with the Fordham Institute:

We know that millions of parents’ lives have been dealt extremely damaging blows by having to forego their jobs and other obligations in order to care for their out-of-school children. We know that there’s ample guidance about how to reopen schools in ways that minimize the risks to the health and safety of both children and adults.

We also know that hundreds of schools and school systems are actually doing this. When the Washington Post surveyed the country’s fifty biggest districts a couple of weeks back, it found that “twenty-four have resumed in-person classes for large groups of students, and eleven others plan to in the coming weeks…. Four more have opened, or plan to open, for small groups of students who need extra attention.” Many private schools are managing this, too, including both day schools and fancy boarding schools. So are lots of charter schools.

Rumor has it that Minnesota school superintendents have a 10 a.m. conference call with Governor Walz this morning.

Will they discuss the numerous best practices schools across the United States have taken to successfully and safely resume in-person learning that schools in Minnesota could try? Or will partisan politics, far more than science, continue to shape school decisions and keep schools shuttered, as this new working paper suggests is the case?