ST. PAUL — Minnesota health officials are recommending that K-12 school students, faculty and staff members vaccinate against COVID-19 before returning to the classroom this fall and continue to wear face masks regardless of vaccination status.

Other recommendations announced Wednesday, July 28, including one for the continued practice of social distancing, come as schools across Minnesota prepare for the 2021-22 academic year and as the U.S. deals with a surge in new COVID-19 infections linked to a more transmissible variant of the coronavirus.

But the strategies outlined in the new Minnesota Department of Health guidance document are only being recommended for adoption to school administrators as opposed to being required. They resemble those deployed earlier in the coronavirus pandemic and, according to a health department news release, mirror guidance issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Taken together, Department Commissioner Jan Malcolm said at a Wednesday news conference, they make for "layered prevention strategies."

"This means using multiple prevention strategies together to provide the best protection," she said.

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New school guidance comes the same week that state health officials said the delta variant, which according to the CDC is more transmissible than previously discovered coronavirus strains, is dominant in Minnesota. The variant, which is driving a nationwide surge in new infections and that Malcolm referred to as "different and more challenging," has lately been linked to three out of every four new COVID-19 infections documented in Minnesota.

While Minnesota is faring better than other states in some respects, its rates of daily COVID-19 infections per 100,000 residents and in its test positivity, both of which are calculated on a rolling, seven-day average, are increasing. The former hit the cautionary benchmark of five new infections for every 100,000 residents on Tuesday, July 20, the most recent date for which health department data were immediately available.

Health department data also show an increase in recent COVID-19 hospital admissions. Health officials Wednesday said an estimated 9.3% of new cases have required hospital care, roughly twice the rate observed during the late 2020 peak in new infections.

Malcolm earlier this week said state-level health guidance for schools would take the form of recommendations, not mandates, partly because there is no framework in place allowing the health department to issue them. The executive orders Gov. Tim Walz signed that required schools to comply with the department's earlier "Safe Learning Plan" for COVID-19 are no longer in effect.

But Minnesota schools, like municipalities, can still establish their own safety requirements.

"Every school district across the state makes local policies and school board policies, and they determine those either for legal reasons and also in partnership with their communities," Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Dr. Heather Mueller said Wednesday.

Officials said in the health department news release that their recommendations "reflect the current state of the pandemic as well as the importance of in-person learning." They include:

  • A recommendation for "all people ages 12 years and older" to be vaccinated for COVID-19 before returning to "in-person school, sports, or other activities." Vaccines for COVID-19 have yet to be approved for younger children.
  • A recommendation for all school students, faculty, staff members and visitors to wear face masks, even those who are fully vaccinated, so as to "protect those who cannot yet be vaccinated or who remain at higher risk because of immune-compromised status or other conditions."
  • A recommendation for students to sit at least three feet apart in the classroom.
  • Advice for teachers and other school employees to stay home from work when exhibiting signs of an infectious illness. Fully vaccinated students and school employees need not stay home after coming into close contact with an individual confirmed to have COVID-19 provided they remain asymptomatic and also test negative for the disease.

Students, teachers and school staff members who are not vaccinated are being advised to test regularly for COVID-19 after class resumes.

Mueller on Wednesday said those old enough to receive the vaccine should do so in part to protect younger children who have not been cleared by federal health authorities to get it.

Dr. Sheldon Berkowitz, president of the Minnesota Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, spoke positively about the guidance issued Wednesday in a phone interview. He stressed the safety and efficacy of the vaccines and said vaccinations "are going to make the biggest difference in getting this pandemic under control."

"If and when vaccinations are authorized for younger ages, down to age 5 or even lower, I would strongly recommend that you get your children vaccinated at that point," he said. "I've got two granddaughters and although they don't live here — one is age 5-and-a-half, one's almost 8 — I would strongly recommend they be getting it wherever they're living once it's available."