GRAND FORKS — When Grand Forks students resume class via distance learning Wednesday, April 1, Superintendent Terry Brenner is hoping for a smooth day – even though he is somewhat concerned about the data load that will be hoisted upon local internet bandwidth.
Following a mandate from Gov. Doug Burgum, North Dakota’s K-12 students are resuming their school year, although the setting will be different. Rather than classrooms, most will be at home, learning via the internet. Superintendents, meanwhile, are hoping for the best.
In Grand Forks, Brenner has been given assurances that local internet providers can handle the surge.
“But,” he said, “time will tell on Wednesday.”
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Burgum ordered in mid-March that all school buildings across North Dakota be closed for one week from March 16 to March 20. He later expanded the order indefinitely and gave school leaders an assignment: Create a distance learning plan.
“Kids are learning from us right now," Burgum said during a March 18 press conference. "We have an opportunity to teach one of the greatest lessons to all of our students and that’s to see their school districts stand up and figure out a way.”
So, they figured out a way.
Schools were required to create a learning plan that would give students equitable access to the “classroom” and learning opportunities. Now, those plans are going into action. The strategies are different for districts across the state.
Most schools have their plans available on their websites. A review of the various plans shows that most schools will be using some form of technology or online learning to reach students, whether that’s through applications available through Google or other programs like Zoom. District plans also outline how education will be delivered based on grade levels.
In Grand Forks, Brenner said Grand Forks already had some online classes developed, but it still has been a challenge to move the entire district to distance learning.
“It's not a new concept, but the brand-new concept was having all students be part of a distance learning program,” Brenner said. “So what we did over the course of 10 days is probably what we would have been doing over the course of two to five years, and never wanting to create this virtual environment where kids never come to campus.”
While some students have already been completing assignments, Wednesday effectively will be the first day back to school for most students across the Grand Forks district.
Students in Larimore – a district of about 400 students just west of Grand Forks – already have been doing some work prior to Wednesday, Superintendent Steve Swiontek said. The district purchased a learning management system last spring, which helped with their preparation for a scenario like this, Swiontek said.
In far western North Dakota, Dickinson began distance education last week, DPS Superintendent Shon Hocker said. Hocker says that, so far, things are going well with distance learning. Hocker said the district’s strategic plan was already moving students toward more distance learning, which made the transition a little smoother. There are almost 4,000 students in the Dickinson district.
“The reports from the community, the things I'm reading and seeing on Facebook online are very, very positive,” Hocker said. “We've had incredible community support. And things are going pretty good. I mean, it's clearly different. We’re trying to make sure that we can keep good, pertinent instructional strategies in front of our students for their benefit.”
It’s a trying time, educators say.
Schools across the nation were faced with ramping up their distance learning plans in a matter of days without knowing how long the plans would have to be in place or what might come next. The week or so of putting together these plans has been challenging for North Dakota school districts, even for ones who have some experience with forms of online learning.
“Everybody's job has stress in it,” Northern Cass Superintendent Cory Steiner said. “This is just a really different type of stress. Preparing for what you don't know is coming next is really difficult in education.”
One challenge for Northern Cass was meal delivery for students. Northern Cass is essentially located in the middle of a cornfield with no surrounding city or town infrastructure; that makes delivering meals to students in need difficult, Steiner said. On Monday, March 30, the school delivered 300 meals, Steiner said.
The district, which has approximately 650 students, has a smaller administrative staff than large districts like Fargo or Grand Forks. Steiner himself is even delivering meals to families in order to relieve a little stress for others.
“A little bit of everything falls on everyone,” Steiner said, noting that when the school did its environmental cleaning, many staff and teachers were there cleaning alongside custodians. “Being a smaller or rural district, you just don’t have access to some of those services that you might have been able to get inside the metro areas.”
While being a rural district can have its challenges, Swiontek said the connection in a small community is important.
“In a small rural school, it’s close-knit,” Swiontek said. “Everybody just about knows everybody else and is willing to help other people and help others and assist people in these challenging times. So I think there's some advantages more so than challenges with working and living in a rural school district.”
A common challenge for districts? Lack of face-to-face communication, Brenner said. It’s a concern many education leaders across the state and country have expressed in recent days.
“Everybody misses everybody,” Brenner said. “That was quite clear.”
Students likely won’t get to participate in activities like prom, sports or other academic activities that also make up a student’s typical day, Brenner said.