There’s still at least a week of debate before Grand Forks school leaders set their plans for this school year. But district leaders appeared to confirm on Tuesday evening that families will have the option to distance learn on request — without needing a special medical reason — when classes resume later this summer.
“We are going to extend that to any family that feels like distance learning is the better format for them going into this school year,” Catherine Gillach, an assistant superintendent, told the School Board.
The meeting concluded with the board’s tacit blessing for the plan, with an expectation the School Board would meet once again on Monday, Aug. 3, to discuss both the reopening as well as athletic programs. Superintendent Terry Brenner asked the board to return ready to put “a final stamp of approval” on reopening plans.
School leaders also voted unanimously to delay the start of classes, from Aug. 26 and 27 — a staggered start, with kindergarten through ninth grade on the first day and 10th through 12th grade starting the next — to Aug. 31 and Sept. 1.
But the announcement starts to resolve a huge question for parents nervous about safety amid the coronavirus pandemic. The decision also means that hundreds of parents who recently expressed concern over a return to class have one less reason to home-school a child, likely diminishing potential losses to total students and, by extension, state funding.
The news came at a School Board meeting convened at Red River High School, where district leaders sat far, far apart over a broad auditorium stage, speaking through masks to be heard. It was one of the most important modern meetings they’ve had, and the pandemic was the only real thing on the agenda.
“We’ve got some passionate people saying there’s no way I’m going to send my student or students to school. And we’ve got other people saying, if the district doesn’t open up schools on day one, they’re going to hear from me,” Brenner said. “And trying to balance all that within the science, and the data.”
The fine details of how the district plans to offer both in-person classes and distance education weren’t immediately clear Tuesday as district leaders discussed re-opening. But across an hours-long meeting, they presented and discussed a plan that dealt with distance learning and more, a new draft of which was provided to the Herald and runs nearly two dozen pages long.
That document attempts to chart out as many conceivable challenges as possible: distance learning, in-person learning, class sizes, student schedules, teacher leave policy, protocols for a sick student, physical education, music education, digital devices, school counselors — the works.
A school spokesperson said she is still waiting on guidance on how to navigate any differences between Centers for Disease Control and North Dakota Department of Health guidelines.
But the document helps sketch what school could look like. If a student is healthy “but has a household member undergoing testing,” for example, their family has to notify building leaders and stay home until results are back, a draft document says. If a student’s family member tests positive, they’ll stay home for 10 days from the infected person’s “onset,” plus a quarantine period of 14 days (public health leaders will help the family determine when it’s safe for a student to return).
If a student is diagnosed with COVID, that student goes into quarantine, their classroom is closed for cleaning, school common areas are cleaned, and anyone in close contact will be approached by local health officials. The student can’t come back to school until they’re cleared by a doctor or the state health department.
The cumulative effect of the presentation impressed on leaders that administrators had thought of as many challenges as possible. Administrators also acknowledged that preparation can only take them so far, though — like when Human Resources Director Lindsey Rood noted that the school’s plans for teacher sickness probably wouldn’t cover every challenge ahead.
“These are probably the most common scenarios, but we fully anticipate there's going to be a number of different scenarios that won't fit into these,” she said.
Some of the comments also indicated the challenges teachers and staff will have in cajoling students into safe social distancing. As they arrive back in class, students probably still will be accustomed to the social rhythm of a typical school day. But that’s no longer possible.
“We’re going to have to teach students that you can’t stop and congregate around Cynthia’s locker for a sustained amount of time,” Gillach said. But if that can be managed, she argued, the risk of transmission during passing periods — so long as masks are worn — remains low.
It was also unclear, during leaders’ discussion, how they would craft a policy mandating staff COVID testing.
The meeting was also remarkably well-attended — the YouTube live stream had more than 600 viewers at one point, demonstrating extraordinary community interest in student safety as the academic year begins.
The meeting also punctuated that the virus remains remarkably hard to track — changing quickly and potentially shifting public sentiment with it. Superintendent Terry Brenner pointed out that it’s possible that a parent survey — which found 8% of parents unwilling to send students —could easily show even more anxieties since results came back.
As the meeting began to close, School Board members started expressing some tentative optimism, though — that things are as good as they could be, given the circumstances.
“We are on the path to the best possible solution,” one board member said on the live stream, “based on what we know today.”