Superintendent Terry Brenner discussed the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on Grand Forks schools, the district’s budget and other education-related topics in a wide-ranging interview recently with Herald Publisher Korrie Wenzel.

About some of the topics Brenner touched on, he said:

  • He recognizes that moving all Grand Forks students to distance learning for the rest of the calendar year poses a health risk to the community, but school staff absences and substitute teacher shortages necessitated the switch;

  • He’s concerned about COVID’s possible effect on teacher recruitment and retention in the future -- a concern that predates the pandemic;

  • The school district has seen more students turn to home-schooling; about 80 new students have chosen that path this school year. That represents lost revenue for the district, and he said he hopes those students will return to the schoolhouse next year.

Brenner made his remarks in an interview livestreamed Tuesday, Nov. 24, on the Herald website. The archived interview is available for viewing on the Herald website, www.gfherald.com.

“The COVID spread at the campus level continues to remain small,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that it’s not happening; it just means it’s on the lighter side, compared to community spread.”

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About the districtwide switch to distance learning, which goes into effect Monday, Nov. 30, Brenner said he understands the “enormous pressure” this places on parents, other relatives and family friends, “especially our working families” and parents who work as health care providers on COVID-19 frontlines.

But the amount of teacher absences and lack of substitute teachers “really started to exacerbate at the building level, and, at some point, you have to ask the question: is this an optimal learning environment for our students?”

This fall, about five schools were at times “piecing it together, holding it together” to maintain in-person learning and did so only because of “heroic efforts ... of teachers, support staff, custodians, all of the people who work in our kitchens,” he said.

"We felt really good about our first 12 weeks,” said Brenner, noting that Grand Forks has been the only large school district in the state to provide in-person learning for that length of time, and other superintendents have sought insights from him on how that was accomplished.

Next week, distance learning for all students begins and will continue through Dec. 22. School is expected to resume Jan. 4, after the Christmas and New Year’s vacation.

“Given all the feedback we had, all the different pressure points, I think it was clear -- whether people agreed with the decision or not -- nobody wants to be in distance learning for any great length of time,” Brenner said.

He views the switch to distance learning as an opportunity for staff members to focus on a singular learning model, rather than multiple formats, and as a time for staff members to restore their health, he said.

Legislative objectives

Looking ahead to the 2021 North Dakota legislative session, Brenner said his top priorities will involve relief from the financial strain caused by the pandemic and the adoption of “on-time funding,” rather than the current one-year delay in per pupil funding. Only school districts, such as West Fargo, that qualify as “rapid-growth,” or a 3% growth rate, receive state funding based on current-year, instead of the prior-year enrollment.

About teacher recruitment, Brenner said he and the district’s human resources officer, Linsey Rood, are working on a recruiting initiative to attract staff members who “reflect our clients.”

“I’m not convinced that (colleges and universities) are turning out the number of teachers for the number of positions we have,” he said. “Simply stated, teaching has lost some respect in the public sector.”

Brenner is also concerned with district data that reveals a dip in overall student grades this fall compared to last fall, with a drop in A’s and an increase in B’s and C’s, he said. The decrease “speaks to learning gaps” that occurred last spring when schools were forced to switch abruptly to distance learning with a mere 10 days to prepare.

With the start of the new school year this fall, in the first week of in-person learning, teachers were focused on building relationships with their students, increasing technical competency with their electronic devices and concentrating on mental health issues and social-emotional learning, Brenner said.

"We’re in a much better place," he said.

In spite of disruptive COVID-induced changes, school attendance this year has remained “pretty similar to last year,” Brenner said. Attendance for students in the face-to-face model is 95% and those in the distance-learning model is 92%, he said.