In Rochester and our surrounding communities, we value the health and safety of our neighbors above all else. We take our responsibility as world health leaders seriously, especially as we welcome people from around the globe to receive treatment from our outstanding physicians.

During the COVID-19 crisis, our care and respect for the health of these visitors has guided our community’s response. We prioritized the safety of all and have made great sacrifices to look after our neighbors. With cases down and vaccine distribution growing daily, it’s time we start considering how we begin a return to normalcy. One of the safest, and arguably most important, areas where we can resume our regular routine is getting our kids back in school.

Because we place so much value in the health of our community, we have moved at a slower pace to reopen our schools than other regions of our state. The time to start getting our kids back in the classroom, however, is now.

Schools are one of the safest places for both teachers and students. According to Gov. Walz’s own numbers, transmission to teachers is at the remarkably low number of 0.37%. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, stated on numerous occasions that it is safe for teachers to return to the classroom before receiving a COVID vaccine.

Perhaps more significantly, Minnesota is one of the few states in the country to have a testing program for educators so we can continually monitor and mitigate any risks of COVID outbreaks. The data shows that it is safe for our schools to reopen, and we have the strategies in place to do so that will protect the safety of our teachers and students.

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It is heartbreaking to see the impact of distance learning on our student’s mental health, social wellbeing, and academic achievement. I have heard countless stories from parents who have watched their vibrant, high-achieving children become shadows of themselves during these shutdowns. Keeping our kids out of the classroom will have devastating, long-term consequences on this generation.

One family recently shared with me the struggles their child with Down Syndrome is facing in Rochester Public Schools. Their son’s individualized education plan (IEP) includes socialization as a part of his daily routine. The school district, however, refused the parents’ request to let their child return to school despite guidance from the Minnesota Department of Education that allows for students with disabilities to receive in-person instruction. This decision is disgraceful and will have serious, long-term ramifications for this student’s health and education.

Gov. Walz provided updated guidance on reopening schools a few weeks ago and set the expectation that all children would be back in the classroom in some form by March 8. Unfortunately, that can mean in-person instruction anywhere from one to five days a week.

We can no longer delay. Schools need to reopen as quickly and as safely as possible. The science and data show that this can happen immediately. Why are we still waiting?

Nels Pierson is the District 26B Representative for the House of Minnesota.