Michelle Kennedy, probably like many other Grand Forks parents, is breathing a sigh of relief this week. As public schools in Grand Forks prepare to welcome back students, they’ll offer classes both in-person and online. For Kennedy’s family, that choice makes an enormous difference.
Kennedy’s son, Ed, is headed back to class at Central High School. But Michelle Kennedy is 56 years old, and her husband, Lynn, is 70. The coronavirus has appeared to have more severe effects and a higher risk of death for older patients, and Kennedy was worried in particular about her husband.
“He's got things going against him. If (Ed) were to bring something home, it could kill his dad,” Michelle explained in a Monday interview. "It's a lot of anxiety going on, without a doubt. A lot of uncertainty.”
On Tuesday night, though, the Grand Forks School Board appeared to offer a solution. Although final plans haven’t been set, leaders spoke with certainty that there would be options for students to learn remotely. That move helps the district chart a course through some of the thorniest questions of the coronavirus — and helps keep the children of anxious parents, and their per-pupil state funding, in the district.
"I have a choice," Kennedy said on Wednesday. "You do have a choice between virtual learning and classroom learning. There will be a discussion in the house as to which direction we're going to go with it. I do feel better that there is an option."
The plan itself, though, adds another layer of complexity on top of an already staggeringly complex return to class. At that same Tuesday meeting, School Board leaders reviewed preliminary plans for resuming classes, which cover the minutiae of school counseling, physical education, classroom social distancing, mask wearing, and how to handle what seems an inevitability: that eventually, someone in a school building will get a COVID-19 diagnosis.
“I’ve been in district administration for 25-plus years, either at the school or the district level. This is the most complex process I’ve been involved in trying to plan for,” Jody Thompson, an associate superintendent, told the Herald in July. “It’s just been a daunting task to try to plan for every possible scenario, knowing that we probably won’t think of every possible scenario until we get up and running.”
And now, the district will offer two kinds of learning, too. In a Thursday interview, Superintendent Terry Brenner said that process will be guided by two surveys sent out to staff and parents, respectively, in the coming week. The surveys will help pair digital learners from around the district with digital teachers.
“If we have, let’s say, 60 fourth-grade students across the district who want to engage in distance learning, and we have two or more elementary teachers who want to be involved in distance learning, then we will create some cohorts of students,” Brenner said. “So it’s very likely that we could have students from various elementary schools being one cohort, or one classroom, working with a teacher.”
But absent the survey results, it’s not clear how easily the numbers of available teachers and students will line up, and Brenner admits there is still quite a bit of planning to do to ensure that every student gets the instruction they need.
“We won’t ask any teacher to be a regular face-to-face day teacher and an online teacher. We’re not going to be asking people to do that,” Brenner said.
Add to that uncertainty officials’ inability to predict how the virus will change. A parent survey administered between July 9 and 15 showed 8% of about 3,000 respondents unwilling to send their Grand Forks students back to campus. Another nearly 5% said they would probably request “accommodations” for students’ medical conditions. Brenner, both on Thursday in an interview with the Herald and at the Tuesday School Board meeting, said those numbers could have changed wildly in recent weeks.
Grand Forks’ coronavirus numbers have shot up significantly in July. As of July 1, there had been 387 cases of the virus diagnosed in Grand Forks County. As of Wednesday, there had been 607 — meaning 220 cases, well more than a third of the county’s total, has come in little more than four weeks.
And it’s imperative the school keep as many students in class — either remote or in-person — as it can. State funding is tied closely to per-pupil counts, and in a world without COVID, the school district would probably bring somewhere around 7,500 students back to class. Thousands of dollars in state funding are a stake for each student whose family decides they’ll try private tutors or homeschooling.
Grand Forks school leaders are expected to meet again on Monday evening to discuss what comes next. The district’s 22-page plan, discussed on Tuesday evening, is widely expected to win approval, and any changes appear to be minimal. School Board member Chris Douthit said he was impressed with the level of detail in the document, though like many other school board leaders, he noted the possibility that the coronavirus could demand sudden changes.
“I do think that we’re in a very good place,” Douthit said. “I always remind myself as a board member, we have to be at a thousand feet above. Put trust in leadership — I think our task is to make sure that the direction is right.”