Grand Forks School Board eyes special meeting to consider shift to online-only
The Grand Forks School Board will likely discuss options on how and when to shift to distance learning at a special meeting slated for Monday, Nov. 16, in light of increasing pressure on teachers, coupled with the exponential increase in positive COVID cases predicted to overtake the county in the next couple of months.
At its regular meeting held Monday, Nov. 9, School Board members and others weighed in on the ever-mounting toll the pandemic is taking on teachers in the district, even though many agree that schools are the safest place for students during these stressful times.
Though next Monday’s special meeting was not officially declared, Vice President Eric Lunn told fellow board members to “leave their dance cards open” for that day.
“We have to (meet), to give teachers time to prepare,” Lunn said. “After that, the next week is Thanksgiving.”
At the special meeting, the board would discuss various options and scenarios – supplied by school district administrators – and consider if and when a shift to online-only would begin, and which grades would be affected.
Grand Forks County is expected to see 38,000 cases of COVID-19 by Jan. 1, said Shannon Mikula, board member. “That is astounding. I don’t see this getting any better.”
Teachers are trying to teach, juggling an ever-changing roster of students – some of whom are learning face-to-face in the classroom. Others are distance learning, and still others are returning from quarantine.
“Just managing it, keeping track of everything, takes a lot of energy,” said Superintendent Terry Brenner.
Staffing is becoming an increasingly difficult problem for principals, Brenner said, as teachers are absent from the classroom due to a positive COVID test or identification as a close contact of someone who has tested positive.
“I’ve been saying all along that the thing that’s going to close us down is staff absences,” he said.
Some schools are “limping along,” he said, as teachers fill in for each other and others – such as paraprofessionals, instructional design professionals and sometimes even the principal – step in to fill vacancies caused by these absences when substitute teachers are not available.
“Many of our teachers have reached that breaking point,” said Melissa Bucchop, president of the Grand Forks Education Association.
She cited a survey the GFEA sent to teachers this past weekend that attempted to ascertain their views on moving to distance learning. About three weeks ago, a similar survey found an “almost even split,” she said. The recent survey found “a two-thirds majority feel it’s time, and they just can’t do (face-to-face learning) anymore.”
“Even the most optimistic teachers are at the breaking point,” she said.
“I’ve had four teachers in the last month who’ve gone in and out," said Evan Whalen, a School Board student member and a junior at Red River High School, who described morale as “a little low” at his school.
“It would be beneficial to go online," the other student member on the board, Alicia de la Cruz, a junior at Grand Forks Central High School, said. “I think students want to stay in school; I don’t know how that would look, especially with (holiday) breaks coming up.”
“I’m not ready to say what’s the magic date (to switch to distance learning only, but) we’re at a point where we need to provide some respite," Brenner said.