As another school year approaches, how will the coronavirus pandemic shape classrooms at Grand Forks Public Schools? District officials are eyeing a plan that would allow students to learn remotely if they choose, but what will students who show up in the fall be asked to do this year that’s different from a normal, pre-virus year?

The answer boils down to wearing masks, according to an interview with Jody Thompson, the district’s associate superintendent of elementary schools.

“It starts at the school doorstep,” Thompson said. “We’ll expect kids to be masked up when they come into our buildings.”

That means masks in the hallways, Thompson said, and masks while riding a bus. When students are in a classroom, the plan is to have their desks 6 feet apart, but they won’t be required to wear a mask unless their teacher, say, switches to group work.

It’ll be a similar story on Grand Forks school buses, where students would be asked to wear masks while riding and to sit in a checkerboard pattern: one student per seat, alternating rows. Drivers and bus monitors would wear masks as well.

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“So, really, the bus is an extension of our classroom expectations,” Thompson said. Siblings will be allowed to sit together, he added, and district staff plan to have students take the rearmost available seat as they board.

He said recent face-to-face summer school classes have gone well, mask-wise – students have either shown up with a mask or been handed one at the door.

“That’s gone really smoothly,” Thompson said.

But what happens when however many hundreds or thousands of students head to classrooms in a month? How will district staff enforce those mask requirements?

District staff typically stand in school hallways during passing time, when students would be required to wear a mask. Thompson said enforcement would probably mean reminding a student to wear one in the first place or wear it properly.

“I really don’t anticipate any issues with our students, to be honest,” he said. “I think they’re good about following our rules and our guidelines, and if we have to re-educate students, we can certainly do that. I just don’t anticipate any problems.”

Students who refuse would presumably be sent to a principal’s office.

“The reality is if we have students that refuse to wear their masks, they're putting others at risk. So we have to look at a distance learning option for that for that student,” Thompson said. “We can’t put individual rights or perspectives above the safety of our other students in those schools.”

And district leaders’ plans could present challenges beyond enforcement. Spacing out students in the classroom and on the bus presumably means they’ll need more classroom space and more bus space. The district pays Dietrich Bus Service to handle student transportation to and from school, and Thompson said district and company staff are set to meet next week to figure out busing logistics.

“We’re hoping that we don’t have to run double routes,” he said. “We’re trying to avoid extended waiting times for families, or for kids having to wait after school for their bus to come back after dropping off the first load.”

District administrators also suppose that the need for extra bus space could be offset by families who opt to have their students learn remotely and others who take it upon themselves to drive their kids to school. Thompson said they don’t expect the plan to have a “significant impact” on the budget.

Classroom space might also be at a premium. To make room, Thompson said, teachers might shuffle around classrooms and bring home furniture they may have installed, like a couch on which students can read. District administrators are looking at holding classes in media centers or gymnasiums.

“We’re looking at all of those spaces and trying to be as creative as we can,” Thompson told the Herald. “Every nook and cranny is being investigated for where we can have students safely educated.”