BYRON — During a visit to a Byron elementary school Wednesday, Gov. Tim Walz offered no sign that he's prepared anytime soon to give up his emergency executive powers in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, saying he would continue to follow the science and public health recommendations.

"If you're tired of this, if you're sick of it, I'm right there with you," he said.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz addresses the press during a visit to Byron’s Primary School as part of the statewide Safe Learning Tour in Southern Minnesota on Wednesday, September 16, 2020, in Byron. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz addresses the press during a visit to Byron’s Primary School as part of the statewide Safe Learning Tour in Southern Minnesota on Wednesday, September 16, 2020, in Byron. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

Walz's executive orders have placed restrictions on everything from restaurants and schools to daily life. Many Republicans and conservative critics argue that he should bring the executive orders to an end and let life return more to normal.

Addressing the mask mandate that he signed in July, Walz said the requirement was not meant to deprive people of their personal freedoms.

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"It's to end COVID-19, so we can go back to where things were at," he said.

Walz has been traveling the state and visiting districts like Byron and Albert Lea on Wednesday to applaud schools and teachers for "stepping up" during the pandemic.

Districts have been given some freedom to experiment and adopt the models that work best for their students and parents. Byron, for example, has in-person learning for students in preschool through fifth grade, and a hybrid model for middle and high school.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz talks with a student during a visit to Byron’s Primary School as part of the statewide Safe Learning Tour in Southern Minnesota on Wednesday, September 16, 2020, in Byron. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz talks with a student during a visit to Byron’s Primary School as part of the statewide Safe Learning Tour in Southern Minnesota on Wednesday, September 16, 2020, in Byron. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

Byron Primary School Principal Amanda Durnen told the governor that the return of students to Byron after a six-month absence, when public schools shut down and went into distance-learning mode to prevent the spread of the virus, was a joyful reunion.

"There has been no greater joy than welcoming our families and our kids back to school," she said. "Tears of joy."

Walz spent his time at Byron helping deliver grade-school kids to their parents as parents drove up to pick them up. He waited at a yellow cone to greet the students. Since school buses are only allowed to operate at 50% capacity, more of the burden of transporting children has fallen on parents.

"What we have asked you to do has never been asked of educators in this country before," Walz said to a group of masked Byron staff outside the school. "Our goal was always to get them into the classroom, but not before it's safe, and not if it put you at risk."

A Mankato high school football coach before he entered politics, Walz talked about how much he missed football. The Big Ten announced recently that the football season will start Oct. 24. The Minnesota State High School League is set to meet Monday to decide whether football and volleyball should be played this fall.

"It's just like school," Walz said. "We have to make sure that everything we're doing hits the threshold of safety."

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz thanks teachers during a visit to Byron’s Primary School as part of the statewide Safe Learning Tour in Southern Minnesota on Wednesday, September 16, 2020, in Byron. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz thanks teachers during a visit to Byron’s Primary School as part of the statewide Safe Learning Tour in Southern Minnesota on Wednesday, September 16, 2020, in Byron. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

During his visit, Walz offered evidence that his approach is working, noting that Minnesota has a test positivity rate of 4.8%, while states surrounding Minnesota range from 15% to 26%. He did not specify which states he was referring to.

Officials argue that it would not make sense to dial back many measures. Influenza season is expected to overlap with the coronavirus this winter. And a long, cold winter would mean more people huddled inside, increasing the chances of infection.

"There will be a day when all this is over," Walz told Byron staff. "There'll be a day when the masks come off, and the kids will give us the hugs they want."