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State health officials urge that all wear face masks, 12+ get COVID vaccinations for upcoming school year

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Minnesota's K-12 schools should follow recently released federal guidance for COVID-19 protocols during the upcoming school year, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) said Wednesday.

The state's recommendations, highly anticipated by many parents as back to school season approaches, reflect what MDH described as "concerns about an uptick in COVID-19 cases driven by the delta variant." In short, the department suggests:

  • All students, teachers, staff, and visitors in school buildings should wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status, whether vaccinated or not
  • Anyone 12 and up who hasn't been vaccinated is urged to do so before the start of the 2021-22 school year
  • Schools should maintain at least 3 feet of physical distance between students within classrooms whenever possible

MDH's announcement comes a day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its indoor mask guidance. The agency said everyone in a K-12 school, regardless of vaccination status, should wear a face mask while inside.

The department specifically noted these recommendations are not mandates schools must follow. They are, instead, a representation of "the most current science-based best practices for safe in-person learning," which districts can use to make their own decisions about how to safely bring students back into the classroom, MDH said.

School districts have control over what COVID-mitigation measures they want to put in place ahead of the 2021-22 school year.

“Vaccination, masking, and physical distancing remain our best public health prevention strategies for slowing the spread of COVID-19,” MDH Commisioner Commissioner Jan Malcolm said in the announcement. “The Delta variant is proving to have an alarming ability to spread more easily, so it’s more important than ever that anyone eligible for vaccination get that protection as soon as possible, and follow the CDC’s guidance for continued masking, distancing and other prevention strategies to help avoid the widespread illnesses and community impacts we saw during the last school year.”

The masking and vaccination guidance are meant to help protect students, particularly those who aren't able to get the COVID vaccine at this point or those who remain at high risk because of a health condition (e.g. they are immunocompromised).

MDH also suggests any students, teachers or staff who show signs of "any infectious illness" should not go to school, but instead stay home and contact their doctor. Those who are not fully vaccinated but are returning to in-person schooling, sports or activities "should get tested regularly for COVID-19," the department said.

In addition, MDH is urging schools to improve good ventilation, employ a method of contact tracing, and continue to reinforce the importance of preventative measures such as cleaning, disinfection, handwashing and "respiratory etiquette."

“In-person learning is critical, not only when it comes to academics, but also for our students’ social-emotional well-being and mental health,” said Minnesota Education Commissioner Dr. Heather Mueller in the department's announcement. “As we head back to school this fall, we must implement measures to protect the health and safety of all of our students, staff and families.”

MDH officials are expected to provide more details at a Wednesday afternoon news conference.

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