ST. PAUL -- In response to the coronavirus pandemic, all K-12 schools in Minnesota will close Wednesday, March 18, through at least March 27, Gov. Tim Walz said Sunday.

The move comes as the Minnesota Department of Health reported 35 cases of COVID-19, the illness that stems from the coronavirus. So far 1,422 people in the state have been tested.

Walz said there has not yet been a significant number of cases tracked in Minnesota schools or among children or teenagers, but he said the state sought to take preventative action to avoid the spread.

“We cannot wait until the pandemic is in our schools to figure things out,” Walz said during a press conference.

Walz signed Executive Order 20-02, authorizing the temporary closure of Minnesota public schools, on Sunday. The order also requires schools to provide care for elementary-age children of health care professionals, first responders and other emergency workers during previously planned school days "to ensure Minnesota’s first line of defense against COVID-19 can stay on the job."

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The governor said, beginning Monday, school officials will take steps to plan for the school closures including preparing distance learning procedures. And as part of the executive order, schools will continue to provide meals to students in need and set up continued school mental health services.

Educators will check in with students at least once a school day, under the distance learning procedures, state officials said. And exactly what that would entail would vary in each district depending on what teachers determine is appropriate. Some districts and charter schools were set to close schools prior to Wednesday, state officials said.

"I am stressing to use this time to plan," Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said. "We are not accommodating for a couple snow days, we are planning for the potential for weeks of distance learning."

The decision came days after Walz and state officials opted not to close schools, citing a lack of evidence around the disease being detected in children and teens and concerns about requiring health care workers to stay home with children, preventing them from caring for the sick. But Walz said he'd had several meetings over the weekend that led his administration to the option to close schools for the more than 850,000 K-12 students in the state, while still keeping some services available.

"Our thinking over the weekend was to buckle down and come up with an operational plan," Walz said.

Concern about community spread

Most of the 35 cases of COVID-19 reported in Minnesota appear to be the result of travel or interaction with a person who has traveled, Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said. But three occurred through community transmission, which means their cause is unclear. Due to a shortage of tests, there is no way to determine how much community transmission is taking place, Malcolm said.

Malcolm and Walz urged Minnesotans to limit social interactions and large gatherings to limit the spread of COVID-19. And they urged Minnesotans to limit social interaction to prevent the spread of the virus. But they didn't go as far as to close bars and restaurants as other states have done. They said older adults and those with health conditions should be especially cautious and said sick individuals should stay home from work.

“We have a strong work culture of toughing it out in Minnesota and this is not the time to do that,” Malcolm said.

Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove said the new order wouldn't apply to child care providers and said providers should continue caring for children as long as it is safe for them to do so. Grove also urged employers to allow employees to work remotely as they are able.

Grove and Walz said they were monitoring federal legislation around paid family leave funding and would also call on Minnesota lawmakers to free up funds to support workers and small businesses affected by COVID-19.

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