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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A Republican proposal to strip Democratic Gov. Tim Walz of the emergency powers he used to close schools as the coronavirus pandemic took hold in Minnesota passed its first test in the state Senate on Wednesday.

All previous attempts at the Legislature to roll back Walz's emergency powers have failed along party lines. The proposal highlights the political divisions over how best to address the safety concerns about reopening schools, while also considering the needs of children who have fared poorly with distance learning.

“There has been great consternation and concern about the closure of our public schools for in-person student learning,” said Sen. Carla Nelson, of Rochester. She said her bill “puts the decision making where it should be, which is the locally elected school board.”

Minnesota allowed school districts to resume in-person learning for elementary grades starting Jan. 18. Many districts have done so, at least partially, or are making preparations.

Two Walz administration officials — Deputy Education Commissioner Heather Mueller and Assistant Health Commissioner Dan Huff — said they sympathized with parents who testified that their children had fallen behind with distance learning. While children don't usually get seriously ill from COVID-19, Huff said the state's restrictions are necessary to protect teachers, staff and the broader community.

“The governor's statutory authority to manage school activities and schedules in a pandemic are crucial to addressing the health concerns of our students, families and educators in a consistent and coordinated manner,” Huff testified. “No one, no community is an island when it comes to a highly infectious disease such as COVID.”

The Senate state government committee sent the bill to the education committee on a 5-3 party-line vote. There's no corresponding legislation in the Democratic-controlled House, which blocked several attempts last year and earlier this year to rescind all the emergency powers that Walz has used to respond to the pandemic. Nelson's bill narrowly targets only the governor's authority to close public schools and curtail school activities.

Teachers now qualify for coronavirus vaccinations in Minnesota, along with health care workers and people over age 65. The Minnesota Department of Health reported that 458,651 people across the state had received at least their first dose as of Monday, or about 8.3% of the population, including 122,597 who have had both doses, or 2.2%. The department reported 669 new cases and 24 new deaths Wednesday to raise the state's totals to 463,766 cases and 6,234 deaths.

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