Education commissioner talks masks, vaccine as summer break nears |

Education commissioner talks masks, vaccine as summer break nears

Ryan Raiche
Updated: June 04, 2021 10:13 AM
Created: June 03, 2021 08:28 PM

As kids around the state get ready to head into summer break, administrators are already thinking about how the next school year looks in the waning days of the pandemic. 

Starting this summer, masks will be a decision left up to individual school districts and that will likely continue into next school year, according to Dr. Heather Mueller, the new Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Education. However, the state will still recommend masks for kids who have yet to be vaccinated. 

“They should continue to wear masks, as well as the people around them,” Mueller told 5 INVESTIGATES, in a wide-ranging interview about the challenges ahead.

Mueller, who began as a school teacher in the Mankato area, rose through the ranks in the Department of Education when Gov. Tim Walz appointed her to lead the department in April when then-commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker stepped down.

As commissioner, Mueller is tasked with guiding schools through the next phase of the pandemic, which appears to include full-time, in-person instruction.

“Distance learning as we have it in this iteration will not exist unless there are statute changes,” she said.

Distance learning in its current form was an option because of the governor’s executive order; however, that order comes to an end at the end of this school year. Mueller said the only way for districts to utilize distance learning next school year is through a new state law or a new executive order.

Another challenge that will continue through the summer and into next school year is encouraging teachers and staff to get the vaccine, not only to protect themselves but also for the children who can’t get it.

Mueller said the state can not force local districts to mandate staff be vaccinated, however, districts can on their own.

“A school district can say, 'We want all of our staff members, and you are required to be vaccinated,'” she said. “But that's nothing that would ever come from the Department of Education.”

So far, Mueller said she hasn’t heard of any districts making it a requirement for staff, but those decisions may be shaped by the timeline of when a vaccine will be approved for all students. Pfizer has already said it could seek authorization as early as September for kids as young as 2.

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