Hundreds of elementary schools across Minnesota will reopen this week with added precautions aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus, including a first-of-its-kind testing regime for school employees.
As part of a major update to the state’s Safe Learning Plan that Gov. Tim Walz announced last month, any school providing full- or part-time in-person instruction is required to make saliva tests available to on-site staff one day every two weeks.
The Minnesota Department of Education says no other state has implemented such a testing program in its schools.
Already, some 180,000 testing kits have been sent to schools across the state. Officials anticipate shipping between 20,000 and 35,000 more each week to replenish supplies.
Some schools, because they had announced plans to reopen before Walz made his changes, were allowed to resume in-person instruction early, administering tests during the weeks of Jan. 4 or Jan. 11. Many more will start this week or next.
So far, 93 percent of Minnesota school districts have registered for the test materials, along with 58 percent of charter schools. Also participating are 41 percent of private schools and two of the four schools operated by tribes, which are not required to follow the state’s pandemic rules.
Deputy education commissioner Heather Mueller said the the tests are a key strategy for mitigating the spread of the virus, and the response from schools has been “overwhelming.”
“It’s really providing comfort and security during a really tumultuous time,” she said.
NO SYMPTOMS NEEDED
When the school year began in fall, school employees were given a web address where they could order a single at-home test. The response was mixed, and many who ordered a test never submitted a sample.
The on-site tests, which are free to employees but cost the state $110 apiece, will take the place of that strategy. The state has not yet calculated how many employees are taking the tests.
The saliva tests are intended for people who do not feel sick. That’s because the virus frequently is spread by people who do not yet, and may never, experience symptoms.
All Minnesotans have been able to order a free, at-home test since November, and tests are offered at numerous community locations, as well.
Anoka-Hennepin says its first testing day will be Jan. 25, one week after its elementary schools reopen.
St. Paul Public Schools says testing starts Feb. 1, the same day that students in grades pre-K-2 head back to school for the first time in 11 months.
The St. Paul teachers union argues schools should stay closed until coronavirus vaccines are available to staff.
Optional staff tests are just one of the new strategies required of schools.
Most students will have to stay in their primary classrooms for meals, art and music, and staff in some districts will be wearing both a mask and face shield. Students also must keep their masks on during indoor recess and gym classes.
Much has changed since Walz’s Dec. 16 announcement that elementary schools could reopen this week, irrespective of county case rates.
Vaccines are rolling out more slowly than expected, and variant strains of the virus are popping up across the world, including five known cases in Minnesota.
However, case rates and test positivity rates have dropped substantially over the last month, coinciding with stricter limits on commerce, youth sports and multi-family gatherings.
In the week before Walz made the announcement, the state was averaging 3,154 new cases per day and 7.3 percent of tests were coming back positive.
Last week, there were 1,673 new cases per day and 4.9 percent of tests were positive.
Per-capita cases have fallen enough that more middle and high schools may be able to reopen soon, too. Unlike elementary schools, which were allowed to reopen because young children less often spread the virus, secondary schools still are bound by county-level coronavirus case rates.
According to the latest health department report, 22 counties have had fewer than 30 new cases per 10,000 residents over a recent two-week period, which suggests their middle and high schools may be able offer in-person instruction at partial capacity.
Case rates in both Hennepin and Ramsey counties have fallen to just over that threshold, at 35 per 10,000 residents. Dakota County is at 45 and Washington 42.
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