(KTTC) -- Many Minnesota school districts are now doing distance learning across all grades. This includes Rochester Public Schools, which moved elementary students out of the classroom on Nov. 18.
On Tuesday morning in an appearance on CNN, a leading infectious disease expert emphasized the importance of keeping elementary students in the classroom.
Dr. Michael Osterholm is the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. He is also part of President-elect Joe Biden's COVID-19 task force.
He thinks the discussion on reopening schools should be less broad and applied differently based on grades.
"We've got to stop talking about schools," Osterholm said. "If we look at high school students versus grade school students, we see big differences in what the risk is for the disease."
Osterholm said districts can "probably provide a relatively safe environment" for grade-school children. He said he believes those are the students who need in-person learning the most, citing socialization and mental health support.
But the situation is different for high schools, Osterholm said.
"We're seeing lots of outbreaks," Osterholm said. "Right here in the state of Minnesota, we have had many outbreaks of disease in high school students, particularly around organized events like sports."
The infectious disease expert also said it's hard to have an effective workforce when so many parents need to stay home with their kids during distance learning.
The Minnesota Department of Health reported 6,423 new cases on Tuesday. MDH also reported 38 deaths, including three in Olmsted County.
Osterholm offered a grim outlook on the pandemic, pointing out that 88,000 people across the country are hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Tuesday morning. He said that number is growing rapidly.
Osterholm said public health officials are trying to support hero frontline health care workers, who "are trying to pull as many 16-hour shifts a week as they can because we are so short-staffed."
"The public has to understand that there may be beds, there may be rooms, but there won't be the doctors and nurses to take care of you," Osterholm said. "And then we're going to see the death rate go up substantially."
As progress is made on multiple vaccines, but the nation continues to experience a second peak, Osterholm made a plea for people to continue to follow health guidelines.
"Please take this seriously," Osterholm said. "Don't swap air at this point. That's the key message we can get across."