As the start of school begins, Minnesota’s state child welfare agency is leaving much of the COVID-19 decision-making about youth in foster care returning to the classroom to county social services.
Gov. Tim Walz’s (D) statewide plan for reopening schools emphasizes in-classroom teaching, but leaves the decision about in-person, distance or hybrid learning up to individual school districts. According to the Minnesota Department of Education, state experts will provide school districts ongoing analytical guidance based on COVID-19 cases in their communities. The state also set aside $430 million to help school districts and charter schools prepare for the 2020-2021 school year.
Several suburban and rural counties have announced their intention to welcome students back in person next month. But Minnesota’s two most populous counties – Hennepin and Ramsey, home to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul and 29% of the state’s youth in foster care – have already announced that the school year will begin with distance learning.
Either path carries significant consequences for foster parents. Many are older, including relatives who become licensed caregivers, with heightened risk of complications from COVID-19. While very few children develop serious problems with the virus, they can be a conduit of it, even when asymptomatic.
In school districts that start with distance learning, foster parents will have to help accommodate the technological needs for remote attendance. Some will also have to arrange for child care if they are back to working during the day.
According to a statement from the Minnesota Department of Human Services sent via email, decisions about the education of youth in foster care will be up to counties. That stands in stark contrast to a recent announcement in Arizona, where the child welfare agency ordered that foster youth had to attend class in person in any district where the schools were open.
“We don’t have a specific plan to share at this point, and it will be the local agencies, which are responsible for children in out-of-home care, that will likely be making plans with children and families,” the statement from Minnesota DHS reads.
Brian Theine, who manages social services in Ramsey County, said caseworkers will help foster youth enroll and ensure they have needed technology. Ramsey County social workers also discuss strategies for managing remote work and distance learning with foster parents.
“It’s those kinds of conversations that might seem obvious on the surface but they’re not,” Theine said.
Minnesota DHS also passed on issuing a statewide policy on testing foster youth for COVID-19, leaving that to counties as well.
In Hennepin County, county foster services are not testing every child for COVID-19, but permit foster parents to insist on a test for any new youth entering their home, according to Joan Granger-Kopesky, director of social services in Hennepin County. This has helped to avoid youth quarantining in group homes or residential care when a change in placement becomes necessary, she said.
“We inform intended foster parents if we know a child/youth has been exposed to coronavirus as we would share any potential or actual medical needs at placement,” said Granger-Kopesky, in an email.
Ramsey County consistently screens families and youth for COVID-19, Theine said. But since the county places about 80% of youth with relatives, testing is “not a routine thing.”