Schools in the Grand Forks School District will shift to online-only learning between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday breaks, according to a plan approved Monday, Nov. 16, by the Grand Forks School Board.

The plan was approved via an 8-1 vote shortly after 8 p.m. Monday. It calls for teachers to use Monday through Wednesday, Nov. 23-25, to prepare for the shift to remote learning. Students in pre-kindergarten through grade 12 will have the entire Thanksgiving week off, Superintendent Terry Brenner said.

The plan provides for 17 instructional days between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Meals will continue to be provided on those days, either by curbside pickup at the schools or by bus in and around school neighborhoods, Brenner said. Face-to-face learning is expected to resume Jan. 4.

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The change in learning format is necessary to allow teachers and paraprofessionals to “recapture their health,” which has been affected by illness and excessive stress caused by work demands, as well as the health of their family members, Brenner said.

The plan was presented as a means of easing pressure on the district's schools, which has worsened as teacher absenteeism has increased during the coronavirus pandemic.

"In our community and county, COVID-19 numbers have doubled in each of the last two 23-day periods," Brenner said. "Grand Forks County is a COVID hotbed in a state that is a hotbed in the United States, and our country, per capita, is a hotbed on the planet."

Despite these "dismal data," Grand Forks schools have been able to maintain face-to-face learning for 11 weeks, he said. During that time frame, the staff absenteeism has continued to climb, "although some buildings are far more affected than others."

In recent weeks, three elementary and two middle schools have been on the brink of pivoting to distance learning, Brenner said, but were able to proceed because of extraordinary efforts by teachers, support staff and school leadership.

For the board's consideration, several district administrators outlined plans for supporting student learning in the weeks between the upcoming holidays.

A few board members noted that the majority of emails they've received from parents indicated a desire to stay with in-person learning.

Bill Palmiscno, who cast the lone "no" vote against the district's plan, expressed concern about the quality of education students, especially younger students, will receive during this period. He also said he's gotten input from grandparents who say they will be thrust into a teaching role, but don't feel equal to the task.

Palmiscno questioned whether a shorter time frame -- possibly a two-week shift to distance learning ending Dec. 11 -- wouldn't be better for students, academically and socially, "as other schools are doing." Brenner replied that the district "didn't want to make two adjustments" and that approach, when taken in other large districts, hasn't been well received.

Under the new plan, the school district is establishing a "higher standard" than was in place last spring, Brenner said. "Teachers and paraprofessionals will be required to work out of the school building unless given approval by the building principal."

Regarding distance learning, Brenner emphasized that "no one wants that for any length of time."