This editorial is the opinion of the West Central Tribune's Editorial Board, in Willmar, Minn.

As Minnesota's school board members, administrators, teachers and parents plan and make critical decisions, they are all grappling with the start of the school year and exactly what that will look like.

Minnesota issued its recommendations last week while calling on school leaders to make staff and student health the primary priority while choosing the best options at the local level to keep kids in the classroom and learning in this new school year.

Gov. Tim Walz and state education leaders developed recommendations that emphasize in-person classroom teaching as the goal, while leaving the decision of how to start the year — in-person, distance-learning or a hybrid combination — depending on a school district's local COVID-19 conditions.

The start of the school year across Minnesota will be challenging.

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"It's gonna be a first day of school unlike any we've seen," Walz said last week.

The governor's "Safe Learning Plan" released July 30 had five decision goals.

  1. Prioritize the safety of students and staff.
  2. Prioritize in-person learning, especially for young learners and those with the most need.
  3. Recognize differences in potential spread among different ages.
  4. Support planning, while allowing flexibility for individual districts.
  5. Take into account disease prevalence at a local level.

The state's guidance is a good place to start while providing local decision-making at the school district level.

However, this return to school will not be easy. It certainly will take cooperation by all: district administration, teachers, staff, students and parents.

COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon.

State officials warned that there will be some COVID-19 outbreaks in the schools as students, teachers and staff return to their classrooms.

"We are still in the growth phase of this pandemic, but we also can't stop attending to the learning needs of Minnesota kids," Jan Malcolm, the state's health commissioner, said.

Under the data-driven plan, recent county data will be the determining factor for meeting the threshold for a full reopening. Under the most recent data, three southwest Minnesota counties — Lincoln, Murray and Pipestone — are in the worst position to reopen.

All should remember that opening or closing any school is not a political issue, but a student and staff safety issue.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that students need the psychological and nutritional benefits of being in the classroom, CNN reported. However, he stressed that the safety of the students and staff should be "the primary consideration" in making school opening decisions.

And some of us will have to make other sacrifices. Already, the Minnesota State High School League has delayed the football and volleyball seasons until next spring. Other high school sports are making changes in practices and schedules as well.

The most important thing to remember is that we are all in this fight against COVID-19 together. It never should be a political fight or choice. Wearing a mask is a courtesy and sacrifice for the benefit of your family, your school, your community and, ultimately, your health. It is no different than wearing a seat belt. And it also can be a matter of life or death.

Let's all do our small part in our state's battle against COVID-19 and work with our schools’ leaders, educators and parents as they make some of the toughest decisions in their careers and lifetimes. We are all in this fight together.