Kirsten Baesler: Failed bill allowing virtual classes could have helped with closures

Kirsten Baesler, North Dakota superintendent of public instruction. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service

A bill that failed last year in the North Dakota House of Representatives would have allowed school districts to propose plans for online learning in lieu of in-person classes and might now be “very applicable” had it become law, according to Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler.

Although the concept of allowing districts to move some instructional hours online during school closures was popular throughout the House, many lawmakers felt the bill could result in unequal access to education. It died in the House by a narrow margin, 43 to 48.

Gov. Doug Burgum ordered North Dakota’s schools closed Monday, March 16, and later announced they will remain closed indefinitely as the coronavirus pandemic spreads across the country. The closures are another effort to increase "social distancing" by limiting situations in which the virus can spread easily between people.

The state’s 175 public and private school districts are racing to cobble together programs to teach students remotely for the rest of the school year after Burgum signed an order allowing districts to create “distance learning” plans by Friday, March 27, for consideration by the state Department of Public Instruction. The plans may include virtual learning and other types of distance education that do not require internet access.

Rep. Bernie Satrom, R-Jamestown, was among the representatives who introduced the bill after elementary students and educators from his community brought forth the idea. The bill was marketed as an avenue for schools to make up days lost to weather-related closures without tacking additional days onto the end of the year.


Satrom said Thursday that while no one could have predicted pandemic-related closures, he is disappointed the bill didn’t pass last session because it “would have been a perfect solution” for the current situation.

Baesler supported the bill when it was introduced and said Friday its passage would have given districts a chance to evaluate their own capacity for teaching virtual courses, which would have put them in a much better position to implement distance learning now.

“(The legislation) would have been a tremendous asset because I believe the questions being asked this week and next week as (districts) do their planning would have likely been already asked and decided with broad community input and school board support,” Baesler said.

Specifically, the bill would have allowed schools to train teachers and evaluate their students’ access to broadband internet and electronic devices before the mad dash to submit plans at the end of next week, she said.

School districts, by law, are required to meet a certain number of hours of instructional time each year. School districts can apply to effectively lower those requirements through a waiver that can be granted by the state under certain circumstances. Burgum waived instructional hours last week for schools amid the COVID-19 outbreak, meaning schools will not have to make up those lost hours.

The waivers will ensure districts will be able to pay teachers and hourly employees through the closure, Burgum said.

A matter of equity

Even if passed, the bill wouldn’t have solved all the operational issues attached to the extended closures, Baesler said. Ensuring fair treatment for all of the state’s students means finding ways to teach those in rural areas with poor broadband and reaching homes with few or no internet-capable devices.

Rep. Cynthia Schreiber-Beck voted against the bill and said equity was precisely the issue with legislation last session. The Republican from Wahpeton, who serves as the House Education Committee’s vice-chair, said the “one-size-fits-all” nature of the bill left some students at a disadvantage, including those with disabilities.


“It wasn’t that we were at all against online education,” Schreiber-Beck said. “It’s just making sure that every student has the opportunity to learn.”

The bill also required 95% attendance in online classes for them to count toward instructional hours. Rep. Brandy Pyle, R-Casselton, said this rigid condition presented other lack-of-access questions for students attending rural schools. She added that carving out school funding to help students get internet-capable devices might be one solution.

Schreiber-Beck noted that the next few months provide a trial period for districts to implement remote learning, which could give lawmakers the necessary insight to come back with a stronger bill for next year’s session.

Satrom is running for reelection this year; he said if he wins, he plans to again submit the bill for another attempt in January when the Legislature reconvenes. He believes that if the bill is introduced again, it will pass by a wide margin.

If the bill comes around again in 2021, Baesler said its supporters would want to be broader with the language to include for school closures caused by reasons other than extreme weather.

The uncertain path forward

About 15 to 20 districts have submitted plans to the department thus far and Baesler expects every district to submit plans before the deadline. If no plans are submitted, districts would have to “roll the dice” on schools being able to reopen in the next two months, so they could finish the year by the end of June.

The same equity issues surrounding broadband and device access persist as districts stare down the extended virus-induced closures, except the timeline for addressing them is compressed.

Baesler estimated about a quarter of the state’s districts, mostly in rural areas, will submit plans that rely primarily on teaching via pre-taped videos, telephone calls or face-to-face meetings. Even in more urban districts, teachers will likely have to reach some students through these methods.


Still, Baesler said the failed bill’s language was “very helpful” over the past two weeks as the Department of Public Instruction and governor crafted guidance to districts trying to build distance learning plans.

Baesler said Friday the state’s information technology department was working with the North Dakota Department of Instruction to provide local schools with the necessary tools to work with their local internet providers to help with specific needs.

How they voted

The bill came with a “do not pass" recommendation from the House Education Committee by a vote of 11-2.

YEAS: Becker; Bellew; Blum; Bosch; Devlin; Dockter; Ertelt; Grueneich; Hatlestad; Headland; Holman; Hoverson; Howe; Johnston; Kading; Kasper; Koppelman, B.; Koppelman, K.; Louser; Magrum; Marschall; McWilliams; Meier; Mitskog; Nathe; Paulson; Paur; Porter; Richter; Rohr; Ruby, D.; Ruby, M.; Satrom; Schatz; Schauer; Simons; Skroch; Steiner; Toman; Trottier; Vetter; Vigesaa; Westlind

NAYS: Adams; Anderson, D.; Anderson, P.; Beadle; Boe; Boschee; Brandenburg; Buffalo; Damschen; Delzer; Dobervich; Eidson; Fegley; Fisher; Guggisberg; Hager; Hanson; Heinert; Johnson, C.; Johnson, D.; Johnson, M.; Jones; Karls; Keiser; Kempenich; Kreidt; Laning; Lefor; Longmuir; Martinson; Mock; Monson; Nelson, J.; Nelson, M.; O'Brien; Pollert; Pyle; Roers Jones; Sanford; Schmidt; Schneider; Schobinger; Schreiber-Beck; Strinden; Tveit; Weisz; Zubke; Speaker Klemin

ABSENT AND NOT VOTING: Anderson, B.; Kiefert; Owens

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Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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