EDITOR’S NOTE: Portions of the following report were first published Tuesday evening on the Herald’s website.
The president of the Grand Forks Education Association gave early approval Wednesday to the initial return-to-school plan unveiled Tuesday, July 28, by the local school district.
Melissa Buchhop, president of the association, seemed to be satisfied with progress made so far on the district's reopening strategy. She called it a “very thorough plan to keep staff and students as safe as possible” when the district reopens for in-person class later this summer.
She said the district's collaborative approach helped the process.
"We really appreciated (district administrators) reaching out to teachers for feedback and questions," she said, noting that a group of 41 teacher-leaders was asked to review the plan before its presentation to the Grand Forks School Board.
At the Tuesday meeting, the board voted unanimously to delay the start of classes, from Aug. 26 and 27 to Aug. 31 and Sept. 1. The district’s younger students, in grades K-9, will start Aug. 31 and sophomores, juniors and seniors will start the following day.
The board also gave initial approval to plans that will allow families to request that their child distance learn when classes resume.
“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 Tuesday evening.
Discussions, and presumably final approval, will continue at a meeting Monday, Aug. 3.
Buchhop said Gillach and Jody Thompson, associate superintendent of elementary education, "have been very collaborative with teachers and the GFEA. They have made changes (in the plan) due to our input.”
Those changes included teacher input in the areas of student assessment and grading and on distance learning expectations, said Buchhop, a fourth-grade teacher at Century Elementary School.
“There are still concerns,” she said. “We just have to keep eyes on things and be more flexible than normal this school year.”
The school board's decision to start the school year on Monday, Aug. 31, rather than Wednesday, Aug. 26, was a bit of a setback, Buchhop said, because teachers had advocated for a shorter first week of school, maintaining that it is better for students. "The calendar committee fought hard" for that change, she said.
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.
Some of the comments Tuesday 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.
As for the Grand Forks Education Association, Buchhop said “one of our biggest concerns is classrooms.
"But I think when we get in (the classroom) and find out what we can keep and what we need to take out, that will lessen some anxiety," she said.