BISMARCK — North Dakota officials have announced guidelines for reopening K-12 schools this fall.
Instruction may be face-to-face, virtual or a hybrid of the two depending on decisions made by local school boards and COVID-19 conditions in each district, Gov. Doug Burgum said at a press conference on Tuesday, July 14.
Burgum and State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler said school boards and administrators will need to consult with their local communities to create individualized health and safety plans and revamped distance learning plans. Those plans must be approved by local school boards, but not state officials.
The guidelines released Tuesday are largely based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In May the recommendations were 20 pages long, but now they have shrunk to seven.
Burgum and Baesler said they hope the plan’s emphasis on local control by school boards and health officials will prevent another statewide school shutdown.
Though the majority of decisions will be made by local school districts, Burgum said if the state deems it necessary for the community, it can shut down a school if it sees the district is acting "reckless."
Burgum noted that resuming in-person education would “add risk back into the equation” by increasing moments when the virus can spread between people. However, Baesler noted that face-to-face instruction is “vital” to many students.
Baesler said parents who don’t feel comfortable sending their kids to school will be able to opt out of in-person class, though she didn’t offer specific details of what that arrangement would entail.
The governor ordered all schools in the state closed on March 15, a few days after the state saw its first case of COVID-19. Several weeks later, every school in the state introduced a distinct distance learning plan.
Schools remained closed through the end of the school year, however all were allowed to reopen starting June 1 for attendance-limited summer classes, driver's education, child care and standardized testing preparation. Burgum called the summer plan a "soft opening."
Baesler said schools must designate a “COVID-19 team or coordinator” and outline processes for quarantining infected students and teachers in their reopening plans. Schools also have to define avenues for rapidly notifying parents and staff of COVID-19 developments and helping students and teachers who fall into a vulnerable category.
COVID-19 testing will be a component for reopening schools for in-person instruction, though Burgum could not provide specifics. The goal of the reopening guidelines is to have as many schools pursue in-person instruction as possible, he said.
Fargo Public Schools is currently working on its reopening plan, which it will release at the end of the month, according to district spokeswoman AnnMarie Campbell.
"The information shared today will help us take the next steps in planning," Campbell wrote in an email. "During the next few weeks, we will be receiving feedback and input from staff and parents regarding our plan."
West Fargo Public Schools said it is also working on a reopening plan that it aims to send out by the end of the month.
Nick Archuleta, president of North Dakota United, a labor union that represents educators and public employees, said local communities need to be involved in creating the reopening plans.
"I am imploring local school boards and administrators to be as inclusive as possible as they undertake this important planning," Archuleta wrote in a press release. "If we are to instill confidence in the minds of parents, students, professional educators, and education support professionals, it is imperative that they have a seat at the table and that their views are seriously considered."
Burgum's announcement Tuesday comes as the state weathers a rising number of active COVID-19 cases and virus-related hospitalizations. More than 700 North Dakota residents are currently infected with the illness, though the state's rate of positive tests remains lower than in virus hot spots like Florida and Texas.