MILNOR, N.D. — During a normal year in rural North Dakota, Chris Larson wears many hats. As the superintendent of Milnor Public Schools, he sometimes drives buses or teaches classes when teachers fall ill.
This year, with COVID-19 infecting North Dakotans at a staggering rate, Larson and other administrators sometimes have had to switch roles multiple times a day to make sure students receive a proper education.
In a recent week, the Milnor School District lost about eight teachers because they were close contacts to positive cases of COVID-19, and Larson reached out to parents for help.
“One thing led to another. Earlier in the week we already had three that had symptoms and were awaiting tests, and then in the middle of the week we got five more who were close contacts in some capacity, and all those happened at the same time,” Larson said.
The rural community of Milnor, a town of about 650 in southeast North Dakota, answered Larson’s call. Parents voluntarily supervised classes while quarantined teachers taught online. Larson and other administrators drove bus routes and taught classes. By Monday, Nov. 9, some teachers were cleared after testing negative.
State guidance allows for teachers, as essential workers, to continue working if they come into contact with a person with COVID-19 who was not masked, but Larson’s school district isn’t following that guidance.
“What we’ve done as a district is that if you are a close contact, we send you out until you either fill out the quarantine period or you test negative, then we have you come back as an essential worker, masked and so forth. We could probably alleviate some of these problems by just following the essential worker (guidelines) to the letter, but we’re trying to be as safe as we can. We try to land in the middle,” said Larson, who tested positive for COVID-19 about a month ago and had minor symptoms.
With the state's COVID-19 death toll now over 700, Larson is trying to adjust his staff to a new normal of being overworked, because in rural areas teachers and substitutes are not easy to find.
“We’re getting a little bit back to normal, as normal as 2020 can be,” Larson said. “These things will continue to happen, and it’s having a workforce to keep things going. That’s where the parent supervision came in last week. We didn’t have any spread. We just don’t have enough adults.”
About 350 miles away in the northwestern North Dakota town of Bowbells, Principal Celeste Thingvold of Bowbells High School is experiencing a similar trend of a severe lack of teachers and staff due to the pandemic.
“Right now, my teachers are feeling that stress, and they’re starting to drown,” Thingvold said.
She’s preparing to implement a teacher catch-up day every other Friday, where students can go home and teachers can catch up on work.
Last week, Bowbells School District had two of its 13 teachers in quarantine, and another waiting on a test result, Thingvold said. Like Larson, she has not seen the virus spread inside the school buildings, but students and teachers do come in contact with the virus in the wider community.
A few weeks ago, the entire football team was in quarantine after a game, she said.
The drama team also lost students due to quarantine, however, other students stepped up, learned the lines in one night, performed a play and took second place. Usually, a second place award would have sent the drama team to state finals, but not during a pandemic when only first place winners can participate, she said.
“It was pretty cool. In fact, one of our kids got an honorable mention. It shows the resiliency of our kids,” Thingvold said.
Gov. Doug Burgum issued a statewide mask mandate on Friday, Nov. 13, stating that residents must wear face coverings in businesses, indoor public places and outdoor public settings where social distancing cannot be maintained.
Thingvold said some students have resisted the school district's mask guidelines. “If a kid is asked to do something, most of them do it. Some of my kids are really pushing back," she said.
In northeastern North Dakota, Brian Wolf, superintendent of the North Border School District, echoed concerns about staffing issues. The majority of substitute teachers are retired or newly moved into the area, Wolf said.
His district was only recommending masks before Burgum's mask mandate and they have followed state guidelines related to essential workers because “where they’re wearing masks it’s everywhere, where they’re not wearing masks it’s everywhere,” Wolf said. “To a certain degree, it’s really got to run its course, and that’s what is so hard about it.”
Schools in Pembina and Walhalla are now holding all in-person classes after both were shut down for two weeks, he said. With 295 K-12 students and a total of 80 staff, he’s also not seeing the virus spread within the schools but in the outside community.
“We average about 10 kids per class, so we’re able to spread out better than, perhaps, a Fargo school,” Wolf said.
At Central Cass Public Schools, Superintendent Morgan Forness also has not seen the coronavirus spread inside school buildings, but community spread is taking staff away into quarantine, which is making in-person instruction difficult.
The new state guidance related to essential workers has been a help, he said. In a school district with about 1,000 students and about 120 staff, the guidance has kept Central Cass from going back to distance learning.
“It’s allowed us to continue in-person instruction,” Forness said. “We’ve had less than 4% of our students and less than 7% of teachers test positive.”
Forness reiterated that the community at large needs to be more responsible, or in-person instruction won’t be able to continue much longer.
“There are certainly difficulties with the reality of a county and a state that has rising numbers. We’re doing everything we can to keep kids in school, and so far we’ve been able to do that,” Forness said.
Keeping schools staffed amid the coronavirus outbreak is not just a rural problem.
During a Fargo School Board meeting last week, Superintendent Rupak Gandhi, who oversees one of the state's largest districts, said the impending lack of teachers and paraeducators may force schools to return to distance learning.
“We do feel schools are safe places. However, the community rate is increasing so much that it is beginning to impact our schools. We are doing everything we can to find subs,” Gandhi said.
Board member Dave Paulson said the district’s plan of returning to more in-person learning is working, and he criticized the board for giving paraeducators and substitute teachers salaries equivalent to a part-time worker at Taco Bell.
“We know the terrible problem we’re having with substitutes. I don’t understand why there is no discussion about paying them more. Why don’t we significantly raise the salaries that we’re offering substitute teachers during this crisis?” Paulson said. “I’m getting so frustrated by this I’m ready to make a motion. I can’t believe it.”