Grand Forks public schools, in the middle of a pandemic, are six weeks into classes. And so far, they’re finding a new normal: video-streamed parent-teacher conferences, about 1,300 students learning from home and 6,100 more still in class – though often with altered schedules, masks and social distance.
For Amanda Walker, a mother of three students, some parts of it feel like any other year. But in the background there’s still the coronavirus, and lingering doubts that are hard to dispel.
“The high school level is kind of concerning to me,” she said of her eldest, who attends Central High School, with its larger student body and, in Walker’s mind, all the more opportunity to catch a breath of the virus. She has concerns, too, about how far coronavirus has spread through the school. Through her daughter, she hears about long absences that she assumes mean another positive case.
"When a teacher's gone for two weeks, you kind of know," Walker said.
But as the school district fully enters autumn, district leaders see the return to class as a success. Superintendent Terry Brenner, both to the City Council and in a Herald interview, quips that the district has beaten Las Vegas odds on remaining open for in-person classes. Case counts among students remain low, he said, referring to countywide health department data shown Monday to the City Council. Those statistics had put a seven-day new-case average among kids 14 and younger at 1.3 new cases per day.
“I think all is gone as well as it could possibly go,” Brenner said in an interview, arguing that the school district’s dual approach – parents can choose between digital and in-person learning – has been key. “That doesn’t mean there haven’t been some challenges. ... But what I will say is at the building level, staff and students, 100% of them are masked up probably 95% of the time.”
The remaining 5%, Brenner said, comes as students or staff take a drink of water, a bite of food or the like across the natural course of the day.
But, as Brenner said, the new year has come with challenges. Melissa Buchhop, a fourth-grade teacher at Century Elementary School, is president of the Grand Forks Education Association. She said the return to class has been welcome, but that teachers – burdened by a new set of stressors – need to be sure they’re taking good care of themselves.
Teachers are pitching in to help substitute, often giving up a preparation period to do so; at the middle school level, block scheduling means longer classes, which are more tiring for educators. A district spokesperson acknowledged those concerns, and pointed out that school officials are connecting teachers with resources for stress reduction and wellness.
"Teachers were really happy and enjoying being back in the building with our students, but at the same time, with new protocols and doing things this year, teachers across the board are feeling more overwhelmed than we ever have been in that first month,” Buchhop said. “Teachers are overwhelmed and burned out."
It’s unclear how many coronavirus cases there have been in the district, at what schools outbreaks might have occurred, or how many students have gone into quarantine. It all makes it difficult to judge the extent of the pandemic’s impact.
But the school district is quiet on further detail on coronavirus numbers, especially among students, citing privacy and a district lawyer’s legal opinion.
District spokeswoman Tracy Jentz pointed to district policy on infectious diseases, which she shared in an email. The policy bars the release of information about “an affected individual’s infection” or the release of any information “either confirming or denying the presence within the district of a person who has contracted a significant contagious disease, unless otherwise required to do so by law.” Jentz added that close contacts can be informed of exposure.
In the same email, Jentz said the North Dakota Council of Educational Leaders advised school systems in September that local public health officials should be the ones to discuss case counts and the like with the public.
In a subsequent email, Jentz explained that although the district had previously released tallies for adults who had the virus or were in close contact, the district has stopped publicly discussing those numbers.
Debbie Swanson, director of the Grand Forks Public Health department, referred questions on the number of school district cases back to the district, or to the state departments of Public Instruction and Health.
“At times there have been classrooms that have been impacted, at times there have been athletic teams that have been impacted,” said Catherine Gillach, assistant superintendent of secondary education. But she said the district has made “surgical” instead of systemic decisions to deal with outbreaks. "It's allowed us to keep kids and teachers together, and I think that's one of the things that (we’re) doing well."
For some parents, the new school year means a difficult set of new parenting questions. Both of Jessica Deck’s young sons are enrolled in the district’s virtual learning program. Deck is impressed at their teacher’s efforts, but still worries about some of the challenges that come with the distance. Her sons are supposed to learn on their own and build some independence — so should she get involved when she hears a teacher trying to work with kids? How much should she step in to help her sons learn to write?
“They're supposed to be attentive, (but) trying to figure out as a parent how much of that you're helping with when they're sitting upside down in their chair or laying across their chair, and how much of that to leave be — and the teacher calls out to the students, ‘Where did you go? Are you there? I can't see you.’”
It’s also unclear, just six weeks into the year, what the long-term effects COVID will have on the school district. In his update to the City Council on Monday night, Brenner said the district’s budget is facing a significant strain from adapting to the pandemic. And for now, Buchhop points out that worries about retaining teachers in the district would be premature; she said teachers are weighing their futures.
"I think it has crossed all of our minds, but I think it's really too early to tell because we don't know yet if things are going to get better this year as the school year goes on,” Buchhop said.