ST. PAUL — A debate over Gov. Tim Walz's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic again boiled over at the Capitol as lawmakers weighed whether to pull the governor's option to open and close Minnesota schools.

The Minnesota Senate on Thursday, Feb. 18, passed a plan to block the governor from closing schools or impacting classes and activity schedules during a state of emergency. On a 40-27 vote, all GOP senators, along with four Democrats and two Independents, advanced the bill to the House of Representatives, where it is expected to hit a wall in the DFL-led chamber.

Walz a day earlier announced a March 8 target to get public school students of all ages back into the classroom, at least part-time. And he said schools could start bringing back middle- and high-school students as early as Monday.

The governor's revised plan drops prior guidance that required local school districts to consult with health officials before moving into a new education model. But the guidelines will require social distancing, masking, reporting of student seating for possible contact tracing and recommend testing for teachers, staff and students.

GOP lawmakers for months have pushed back on the Walz administration to allow for more students to resume in-person learning. And they took that push a step further Thursday with the advance of the bill and comments from leaders saying all students should be able to resume in-person instruction five days a week.

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"You can no longer make the case that kids should not be in school full-time and by full-time, I don't mean one day a week," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said.

Republican lawmakers who brought forward the bill Thursday said the governor took the right step in encouraging more districts to open, but the guidance came too late. In future emergency situations, local school boards should call the shots, they said.

"It was so devastating what happened that we have to make sure that our children are never put in this type of risk again," the bill's author, Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, said. "We must prevent this disaster from happening again. We must prevent a governor from using emergency powers for nearly a year to keep our kids out of school."

Parents and individual school board members supported the measure while teachers' unions, school administrators, the association of school boards and public health officials opposed it, noting schools would be the only sector not covered by the governor's executive powers if it passed.

“Schools are far too important to be excluded from the governor’s powers,” Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said. “During a public health crisis, we need fast decision-making, based on advice from state health officials, to keep our communities safe.”

Democrats who spoke against the plan said it didn't serve a purpose and warned that pulling a governor's authority to act during a crisis could have unintended consequences.

"This is not about opening schools, this is not about keeping kids safe, this is not about working together to solve a historic problem, this is not about the opportunity gap, this is not about addressing COVID, this is not about protecting school workers," Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, D-Woodbury, said. “This is about trying to score political points against the governor and this is sad and unfortunate."

Walz in March of last year closed schools as the pandemic took hold in Minnesota and instructed teachers to prepare for the remainder of the 2019-2020 academic year to be conducted by remote learning. And ahead of the current school year, he and state health and education leaders rolled out a plan that lets local charters and districts decide whether to open for face-to-face instruction, distance-learning or a hybrid based on the prevalence of COVID-19 in their county.

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As case counts climbed around the state in November, many districts shifted to distance learning models. Walz placed a series of pauses on businesses and social gatherings late in the year to mitigate possible COVID-19 spread.

Case counts, hospitalizations and COVID-19 deaths declined last month and more districts brought back classes (especially of the youngest students) for in-person and hybrid learning.

As of this week, roughly 80% of Minnesota students were back in classes face-to-face or in a hybrid program, according to Department of Education data. Schools and charters that have yet to reopen have cited problems in procuring enough staffing and supplies to get their classrooms up to CDC standards.

Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter @bydanaferguson, call 651-290-0707 or email dferguson@forumcomm.com