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Minnesota health leaders recommend masks at schools in fall

July 28, 2021 GMT

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota health and education officials recommended Wednesday, but stopped short of requiring, that all students, teachers and staff wear masks in schools this fall, regardless of whether or not they are vaccinated against COVID-19.

The recommendations were in line with guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday, and came as the state is seeing a sharp increase in coronavirus cases driven by the highly contagious delta variant, mirroring national trends

“More and more evidence is mounting that the delta variant is a very different and more challenging virus than the original strain,” Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said at a briefing for reporters.

Malcolm added that Minnesota hasn’t seen a daily case new count as high as the 625 reported Wednesday since May 20. The state has recorded just under 2,800 new cases in the last week, she said, a 72% increase over the week before. Hospitalizations are also growing at concerning rates, she said.

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The commissioner also recommended that everyone age 12 and older get vaccinated against COVID-19 before returning to in-person schooling, sports or other activities to protect both themselves and people who can’t get the shots yet. Children under 12 don’t qualify for vaccinations yet. The Department of Health also recommended 3 feet of social distancing within classrooms when possible, staying home when sick and testing after potential exposures. Federal rules continue to require masks on public transportation including school buses.

House Republicans said masking and other decisions should be made at the local level, with no pressure from the state.

“Our parents, teachers, and local school districts have the experience and expertise necessary to make the decision that’s right for their schools, and we need to trust them to do so,” the two top GOP representatives on education issues — Rep. Ron Kresha, of Little Falls, and Rep. Sondra Erickson, of Princeton — said in a statement.

Malcolm said the her department’s endorsement of the CDC recommendations reflect the fast evolution of the pandemic and the importance keeping students in the classroom for in-person learning.

“Students, families and K-12 educators are preparing now for the start of the 2021 -22 school year, and I don’t want to miss saying that we are in a much better place than we were last year, thanks to the millions of Minnesotans who have stepped up to get vaccinated,” the commissioner said.

Education Commissioner Heather Mueller also endorsed the new recommendations on masking and distancing, saying they “will help our local school boards as well as our school leaders keep our students safely learning in person, which continues to be our top priority.”

Mueller said it will be up to local school boards and administrators to decide how to deal with students and staff who don’t want to wear masks as they determine how they’ll follow the state and federal guidance. Districts have the authority to issue mandates, she said, but they won’t come from the state.

“In the end, because it is a local decision, each of our school boards and school leaders will be making the decision about what that looks like for their school communities,” Mueller said.

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Associated Press writer Amy Forliti contributed to this story.