To hold in-person classes, all public Minnesota schools must offer on-site testing for all on-site staff every two weeks beginning Jan. 4, or whenever they return to in-person or hybrid learning.

Gov. Tim Walz made the announcement during a news conference Wednesday afternoon.

SEE ALSO: Walz to keep restaurants, bars closed for indoor service, reopen elementary schools

Testing every two weeks isn’t mandatory for staff, but it has to be offered. The state will provide saliva testing kits at no cost to the districts. This includes nonpublic and tribal schools if they choose to offer testing. The length of the program is contingent on funding, according to the state Department of Education.

All staff who interact with students in person are eligible to be tested, including teachers, paraprofessionals, administrators, support staff, nutrition staff, bus drivers and others. To help manage capacity at the testing labs, each district, charter school, nonpublic and tribal school providing in-person or hybrid learning will receive a designated testing schedule.

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District COVID-19 coordinators and school leaders are being asked to complete a Department of Education survey to indicate how many school staff will receive tests two weeks prior to the designated testing date. This survey will need to be completed every two weeks and the data received will be used by the state to determine the amount of supplies to ship to each district or school.

Staff do not need symptoms to receive a test. Results are typically available within 48 hours of being received at state saliva testing laboratory sites. Results will only be shared with the person who took the test and not the district or school. Staff who test positive are asked to follow their employers' COVID-19 protocols.

Also on Wednesday, Walz announced that starting Jan. 18, every elementary school in the state may choose to operate an in-person learning model without needing to consult their regional support team, as long as they are able to implement all mitigation strategies outlined in the state’s Safe Learning Plan. Middle and high schools must continue to use the original process for determining their learning model.

Though elementary schools are allowed to switch to in-person learning five days a week Jan. 18, there are limits to how many grades can move back to in-person learning if those grades are currently in distance or hybrid learning.

No more than three grades can be reintroduced into the building in a two-week time period. For example, starting Jan. 18, kindergarten through second grade could begin in-person learning while third through fifth grades must either switch to distance learning if they had been in hybrid or continue distance learning. Then starting Feb. 1, third through fifth grades could switch to in-person learning five days a week.

Among other required mitigation strategies and tools:

  • Implement a rolling-start process for students to be brought back to the building.

  • Face masks and face shields must be worn together by school staff at all times.

  • When an educator cannot be 6 feet from students, add a clear barrier between the adult and student if possible.

  • Face coverings must be worn when engaging in indoor physical activity such as during indoor recess, indoor physical education class or when exercising in a gym.

Weekly school COVID-19 numbers

Fourteen school buildings were added to the Minnesota Department of Health's outbreak list Thursday. Seventeen buildings were removed for a total of 301 buildings on the list. No Northland school buildings were added or removed from the list.

A school building is put on the list if it reports five or more confirmed cases of COVID-19 in students or staff who were in a building while infectious during a two-week reporting period. The building is removed after 28 days of no new positive tests.

From Dec. 6-12, there were 712 more positive COVID-19 cases in schools statewide, with 351 new cases among staff and 361 new cases among students. Statewide, 66 more school buildings reported at least one new case of COVID-19.

From Nov. 29 through Dec. 12, 441 school buildings reported one confirmed case of COVID-19, 189 reported two to four confirmed cases and 17 reported more than five.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-verified 14-day case rates per 10,000 residents around the Northland for Nov. 22 through Dec. 5 were:

  • 87.15 in Aitkin County.

  • 149.69 in Carlton County.

  • 52.72 in Cook County.

  • 117.69 in Itasca County.

  • 89.89 in Lake County.

  • 124.85 in St. Louis County.

  • 127.4 in the Duluth area.

  • 128 in Central/Southern St. Louis County.

  • 92.3 in Northern St. Louis County.

The 14-day case rates are used as guidance for school districts when choosing the right learning model for their students at the secondary level.

According to Essentia Health’s COVID-19 Regional Projections dashboard, the county 14-day case rates per 10,000 residents as of Dec. 16 were:

  • 92.4 in Aitkin County.

  • 116.1 in Carlton County.

  • 37.1 in Cook County.

  • 103.3 in Itasca County.

  • 58.2 in Lake County.

  • 106.4 in St. Louis County.