MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Gov. Tim Walz on Thursday ordered Minnesota schools to stay closed through the rest of the academic year amid the COVID-19 crisis.

Walz, who is a former teacher, calls it “a heartbreaking decision.” The Democratic governor says he feels sorry for all the students who will miss out on graduations, tournaments and end of year celebrations. But Walz says the health and safety of Minnesotans is his top priority, so distance learning will continue through the end of this school year.

"While I recognize distance learning is a challenge for many families, it is critical to social distancing in Minnesota and supports the health of Minnesota’s families. We will continue looking for ways to improve the current system and better support our children,” Walz said in a statement.

The governor closed public and charter schools just over a month ago and directed them to switch to distance learning, affecting nearly 900,000 students and their families. His order had been due to expire next Thursday.

But Walz also outlined his approach for gradually loosening restrictions on Minnesota businesses over time. He says his decision will allow up to 100,000 Minnesotans to return to work in industrial, manufacturing and office settings next Monday.

Minnesota’s death toll from COVID-19 hit 200 on Thursday, the state health department reported. Twenty-one new deaths were reported, the highest one-day death toll from the pandemic, passing the previous daily high of 19 reported Wednesday. The department also reported 221 new confirmed cases, another one-day high, raising Minnesota’s total to 2,942.

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