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District prepares shift to all in-person learning for Grand Forks high-schoolers

Review by public health, district administrators and Grand Forks School Board will precede an announcement to parents and students.

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The Grand Forks School District will allow any students who feel that distance learning is the better format for them going into this school year to do so, Catherine Gillach, an assistant superintendent, said during the first, in-person meeting on Tuesday, July 28, of the Grand Forks School Board since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Kimberly Wynn / Grand Forks Herald
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Grand Forks school district administrators are expected to release a plan next week to return high school students to full-time in-person learning, barring any public health trend data regarding a major shift in community spread levels of the coronavirus or other factors that would delay or prevent it.

Students in grades 9-12, using a hybrid model, currently attend school in person every other day at Red River and Grand Forks Central high schools. On the off day, they are in the distance learning model at home. This hybrid model has been in effect since the start of the school year.

The start date for full-time in-person learning has not been determined, but parents and high school students will be given adequate notice to prepare for the shift, said Catherine Gillach, assistant superintendent of secondary education, noting that some students have jobs or have other obligations, such as caring for siblings at home.

“So families do need some time, we recognize, to plan. We can’t just flip the switch on that and expect it to go super smoothly for everybody involved,” Gillach said.

The topic of shifting high school students to full-time, in-person learning will be discussed at the Grand Forks School Board meeting on Monday, Feb. 8, according to Tracy Jentz, communications and community engagement coordinator.

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“Any specifics would be discussed by the board and determined at that time or thereafter,” Jentz said in an email.

At the national level, U.S. senators are seeking to put pressure on school districts to restart in-person learning. U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., along with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has introduced legislation, the Put Students First Act of 2021, to prohibit federal funding to schools that do not provide an in-person learning option by April 30, according to an announcement from Kramer’s office.

“There is no substitute for in-person learning, and the consequences for our country of not properly educating the next generation could be severe,” Kramer said in a news release. “Our legislation prevents schools from receiving federal funds if they are not following the science and prioritizing our children’s education.”

Under this proposed legislation, K-12 schools that do not reopen to in-person learning by April 30 and have already received fiscal year ‘21 and/or COVID-19 relief dollars would be required to return these funds. This provision would apply to any future infusions of COVD-19 relief dollars being debated by Congress.

article6872869.ece Poll: Schools mull full-time, in-class instruction Should public schools have full-time, in-class instruction for all students by April 30? Yes No

Last month, the CDC recommended that America’s schools should reopen as soon as possible if precautions are taken -- namely mask-wearing and social distancing -- and that new scientific research provides “a path forward to maintain or return primarily or fully to in-person instructional delivery,” the news release from Cramer’s office stated.

Also, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky reiterated that “vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools” and it is clear “that there is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen.”

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President Joe Biden has committed to reopening schools within his first 100 days as president, and his administration maintains that an infusion of $130 billion is necessary for schools to open safely, “despite reports demonstrating that K-12 schools are not significant drivers of COVID-19 transmission when reasonable measures, such as masking and social distancing, are practiced,” Cramer’s news release stated.

In Grand Forks, students in grades kindergarten through 8 are being taught in person in schools, unless they have chosen to be full-time distance learners.

Local plan

Grand Forks Public Schools’ plan to return to full-time in-person learning for grades 9-12 will be reviewed by Grand Forks Public Health officials, and district administrators will seek their input and suggestions, Gillach said. Then it must be reviewed and approved by the school district’s Administrative Cabinet before it moves forward, she said.

The plan will take into account the district’s internal data, such as the number of students and staff members who are not present in school due to COVID-related reasons, Gillach said.

It will cover instructional changes as well as adjustments affecting athletic activities’ protocols and procedures, she said.

School district officials have “looked at every element of our operations that has had some sort of COVID-related restriction on it -- everything from, do we check out school vans to transport kids, to instructional practices, group work, to reopening the high school to full-time, to professional development, to meetings -- the punch list, if you will, was about a page and a half," according to Gillach.

Throughout the decision-making process during the pandemic, the district has tried to be patient, thoughtful and purposeful, she said.

“We’ve looked at the data. We haven’t reacted too soon; in our minds, we haven’t reacted too late -- and people have differing opinions on what is too soon or too late, and we’re willing to take that on the chin, if you will, and listen to those opinions.

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“But we’re still going to make decisions based on what we think is best for our kids and our staff members in the end," Gillach said.

Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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