Faulty decision making by school officials, not the virus, keeps students out of the classroom

Earlier today, the Star Tribune run an editorial encouraging Minnesotans to do their part to control COVID-19 so that kids can stay in school as Omicron surges. The editorial especially notes that with Gov. Tim Walz signaling that he will stay the course that he is on –– i.e., no restrictions of any kind as he did during the emergency period –– personal responsibility is especially needed to control the virus.

But a statement this week from Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’s office suggests he is staying the course on current policy, which encourages mask use but defers to individual school districts on masking.

“The governor is closely monitoring the spread of cases and working with state and local experts on continued steps to keep students safe and in the classroom. Those steps include recommending mask wearing, encouraging testing and increasing access to vaccinations,” the statement said.

“That’s why the state has provided nearly 2 million tests to schools and held 82 vaccine clinics for students, staff and families that have helped make Minnesota sixth in the nation for 5 to 11 vaccination.”

Even being sixth in the nation when it comes to vaccinating 5- to 11-year-olds leaves too many kids unprotected. Currently, just 22% of Minnesota kids in this age group are fully vaccinated.

The importance of taking individual action to protect in-person learning is clear. Vaccinations, boosters, using high-filtration masks, avoiding high-risk settings and getting tested are vital for students and families. Another important step parents can take: checking if local schools are deploying COVID testing resources (bit.ly/MNschooltests) available through the state specifically for education.

Promptly detecting COVID is critical to halt its spread. Rapid tests accessible to schools through the state program can be sent home with symptomatic students and staff. There are options as well to test at school and to screen for illnesses in advance of outbreaks. Is your child’s school taking full advantage?

Kids do best in the classroom. Teamwork is needed to keep them there with omicron’s advance.

As I wrote earlier this week, school closures are indeed harmful to kids, so it is best that dealing with Omicron does not involve school closures yet again. But unfortunately, the school districts, through union influence, have the power to decide the fate of schools.

Certainly, people should be encouraged to protect themselves in whatever way they see fit. But putting the responsibility of keeping kids in school on Minnesotans ignores the fact that it is school officials who are responsible for these decisions. It also implies that school closures will be necessary when cases do rise.

The fact of the matter is, more data is showing that Omicron is less severe. Not to mention that throughout the pandemic, young people have been shown to already face a low risk of sickness and death from the virus.

Instead of placing the burden of action on Minnesotans, school districts need to be told to be more rational with their decision-making instead of closing schools at the first sight of cases. The data shows that school closures have little impact on COVID-19 outcomes. Two years into the pandemic, there are numerous other ways to protect our vulnerable individuals without imposing further costs on students.