Jasinski: Governor’s announcement about fall school year puts educators and families in tough spot

Parents, educators, and students across Minnesota spent weeks and months eagerly awaiting the governor’s announcement about how schools will be allowed to reopen, but when he made his announcement on July 30, it appeared hardly anyone was satisfied.

If you missed it, the governor announced that schools will have some flexibility about reopening based on the number of COVID cases in their communities. At a press conference announcing the decision, Gov. Walz said, “not all schools look the same, not all parts of the state look the same, and we need to take those into consideration.”

This is exactly the point that myself and many others have been making for weeks as we recommended letting individual districts take the lead. It was even the subject of my most recent column, “Let schools decide to reopen.” The needs of students in places like Waseca are much different than the needs of students in Minneapolis. So is the status of the outbreak.

While the governor’s announcement was encouraging at first glance, in reality his guidance muddied the waters even more than they were before.

The biggest issue: schools’ procedures on reopening will be guided by an ambiguous and confusing matrix. During the press conference announcing the new guidance, reporters had a number of questions about potential scenarios that weren’t necessarily explained by the matrix – for example, what happens when districts are located in multiple counties, or how are preschool students impacted. Few of these questions were answered with any level of certainty.

Another problem that we have tried to highlight often: the late announcement puts schools and parents in a very difficult spot. Parents and educators have been begging for clarity. Something specific they can use to plan for the fall year. In that respect, the governor’s announcement was a swing and a miss. In fact, many parents won’t know what their students’ 2020-2021 school year will look like for several more weeks. In some cases, parents may not find out until the week before school begins. Parents, teachers, and students would have been much better off had the governor made this announcement in June.

It is especially frustrating because the correct approach is so obvious: he should have granted full reopening authority to local schools and communities from the beginning. The American Association of Pediatrics, the director of the CDC, and other experts agree that it is better for students if they are physically present in schools. Parents agree: according to Education Trust, nearly 9 in 10 parents are worried about their children falling behind academically due to coronavirus-related school closures.

And not just because it’s better for their education. Schools provide so many other important benefits, like socialization, mental health support, and meals. These are things that are frequently overlooked but critical for many students.

The bottom line: parents and elected local officials have a far better understanding of their own communities than Gov. Walz; they should have the option to decide what reopening scenario works best for their specific circumstances. The governor’s announcement was on the right track, but he could have done much better.