There are 121,000 students in grades K-12 in North Dakota. Most haven’t stepped foot in a K-12 building since mid-March, when Gov. Doug Burgum ordered the shutdown of the state’s schools in response to the growing coronavirus pandemic.

Now, schools are crafting plans to reopen, working in what Burgum calls “uncharted territory.”

“... We move into new territory this fall with a dual purpose: we need to focus on providing the highest quality education to all of our students and we also have to safeguard the health and safety of those students, and staff, and faculty and administration and the families they go home to,” the governor said last week.

And with that, Burgum announced that schools can reopen, but with a “dual mission of both education and public health.” That will add some challenges, he said.

Planning for a return to school is an important step toward moving forward from the pandemic. It’s important that kids get back to a normal education setting, and it’s good to spend these weeks making plans to that end. Burgum has put the onus back on local districts to decide on their own. Boards are feverishly crafting plans.

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The state “provides a framework but we believe in local control and flexible decision-making as we go forward,” he said.

But so much work to do, and so many questions to answer.

Concern, naturally, must be for the children. Their return to school is, we believe, as important socially as it is educationally. We also worry students simply have lost too much learning due to the shutdown -- not due to lack of effort by administrators, teachers and parents, but simply due to the upheaval brought on by the pandemic and shutdown.

Off-site learning works in a pinch, but – as noted in a Washington Post editorial two weeks ago – it is “no substitute for students learning with peers and a teacher present to gauge progress.” It also comes with a risk of less-privileged students falling behind, due to substandard accessibility or less supervision as parents in some of those families may be considered essential workers and required to go back to work.

So yes, students should go back to school.

Yet the process is worrisome. A survey earlier this summer conducted by the American Association of School Administrators showed that 94% of responding superintendents still weren’t sure whether their district would open for 2020-21. That survey was conducted just a month ago.

And the Herald is hearing questions about the safety of returning to school, as well as specifics about local school plans on both sides of the Red River.

We’re working on it. Stories last week started the process, and it will continue in the coming days.

Meanwhile, we also know that some schools are handcuffed as they await further direction from their respective state. That’s especially the case in Minnesota.

All schools in the region can help the process by remembering to include district patrons in the process – whether in-person, through very accessible and televised live meetings or simply by sharing regular updates with reporters.

Now is no time to pull the shades, since it will only sow suspicion and concern during an emotional and confusing time in our history.