BISMARCK — State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler says the decision to reopen schools for in-person instruction or to continue with distance learning should be made by local school boards and communities.

Baesler and school board members across the state met remotely Wednesday, July 1, to discuss questions related to instruction for the 2020-21 school year amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The North Dakota Department of Public Instruction, headed by Baesler, is working with the Department of Health and the governor's office to create guidelines for state public schools' reopening in the fall. Baesler said she hopes to have official guidelines to school districts by mid-July, which would give school boards time to consult with local health departments, students and families to develop a plan.

"It is my opinion that as much of the decision-making authority needs to lie in the hands of our local school board members, who are elected by their community members, in concert with the local public health units," Baesler said.

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In the past week, North Dakota's number of coronavirus cases has continued to steadily increase, and 38 states have had recent growth in the number of newly reported cases within the last 14 days, according to the New York Times.

In discussions with local education leaders, Baesler said many expressed the need for an extension to Gov. Doug Burgum's executive order that allows distance learning to count toward instructional time, which they said would give districts additional freedom in deciding the type of instruction to pursue.

Baesler said there should be guidelines and requirements for districts to follow, but what that looks like is up to each community. For example, schools should have a plan for coronavirus screening and a prepared response in the event of a confirmed case, but communities should decide what those plans and responses are, she said.

She said she will work closely with colleagues in the federal government to ensure federal funding is benefiting all students.

"Regardless of your ZIP code, students in every area of North Dakota and every area of this country need to be safe when they return to schools," Baesler said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a report for America corps member, at mgriffith@forumcomm.com.