With COVID-19 cases in Stark County on the rise, area schools won't necessarily change their modus operandi should the county be designated "Orange" (high risk) on the state's coronavirus alert system.

The reason is that school districts have the power to decide the color of their district — independent of the state's alert system.

"The governor was clear that he wanted that direction to come from local boards that have been voted and elected by their communities, so he placed that responsibility on the districts," said Shon Hocker, superintendent of Dickinson Public Schools.

Should Stark County move to "Orange" designation, Belfield Public Schools Superintendent said their district would remain in "Yellow" (moderate risk).

"What happens in Belfield School District is way different than what’s happening in South Heart’s, than what’s happening in Dickinson’s. All of our county schools have different scenarios," he said.

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Instead of basing their level on the level the governor designates for the county, school districts and boards have the autonomy to make their own decision, although the metrics for said decisions are not clearly defined nor concrete.

"I imagine it would be the number of positive cases that would affect the education of all of our kids," Kurle said, adding that the number of teachers who are out of school could be a contributing factor as well.

None of the school district spoken to said they were beholden to an arbitrary number, like the number of active cases. Rather, they would independently review the situation in their schools and determine whether or not the school will remain open or closed.

"I want to keep all of that open," Kurle said. "The less we say, the better it is for us, because if we say we’re going to do this, this (and) this … then we have to do this, this (and) this … We’re going to take it on a case-by-case basis. We can make our decisions based on what we have, and we’re not in violation of our plan."

In the same vein, Dickinson Public Schools echoed similar sentiments with regard to plans.

Superintendent Hocker said the 14-day infection rate provided by Southwestern District Health Unit will factor in the district's decision to change from one level to another.

"We also look at things individually. For us, the contact-tracing piece is a key. If we have widespread cases within an individual school, that’s when that school may need to be shut down for a period of time, which fortunately we have not had to do yet," he said.

Hocker addressed the possibility of closing a school for other reasons, saying that should too many teachers become sick or in quarantine a decision would be made at that time and place. If the governor were to change Stark County to "Orange," DPS confirmed that they would likely operate much the same as it is now.

"Our hybrid plan … it would be relatively unaffected because we essentially combined yellow and orange in our plan," Hocker said.

The school districts' authority in regards to the COVID-19 threat level has proven confusing for at least one area administrator.

"When we first put our plan together, we were under the impression that the operational guidance portion of the plan was supposed to follow the color-coded system that was developed for the state," Kurle said. "We were thinking that when … the counties would be green, then we should be in the operational guidance of green. If the county were to go to yellow, we were supposed to go to yellow. If the county were to go to orange or red, then we would have to go to our orange or red."

Due to said confusion, the school board met last week to revise their health and safety plan so that the district would not have to close school should the governor declare the county "Orange."

"We had heard that the county may move to orange or even possibly red. Well, that kind of put me into a panic because now having 6-7 weeks of school essentially, I don’t want to move to distance-learning ... We need to keep face-to-face as much as we can, so what I said is, ‘Ok, then we really need to amend this (plan)," Kurle said.

The board voted to change their plan's orange/red category, replacing "will" go distance learning with "may" go distance learning.

"Then again I was thinking, if the county goes red, we’ve got to go distance learning, but we actually don’t," Kurle said.

The confusion experienced in the situation is understandable, as the guidance from state officials has been unclear, contradictory and sporadic.

In the North Dakota K-12 Smart Restart Fall 2020 guide, which outlines guidance for school districts' health and safety plans for returning to school, under threat levels "Red" (critical risk) and "Orange" (high risk) it states, "Schools should remain closed for general in-person instruction."

The North Dakota Department of Public Instruction website's Frequently Asked Questions also calls the distinction into question.

One of the questions, "Can I choose the color for my school district?" was answered by the state with, "No. The color is determined by the Governor in consultation with the NDDoH."

Another question, "Who determines each district's risk level?" was answered with, "The North Dakota Department of Health will inform local public health units about state and/or county risk levels."

Officials at the NDDoH were unavailable for clarification; however, Sherry Adams, executive director of Southwestern District Health Unit, explained her understanding of the guidelines and guidance coming from the state.

"The hard part about all of this is that everything is 'strong recommendations,' but if we actually moved to orange, the strong recommendation would be that the schools move to orange as well because of the fact that when we get to that level - and I'm afraid we might- that means we are not slowing the spread. To do that is going to take everybody," Adams said.

If the county were to be designated "Orange," the recommendation for schools would be to move to distance learning.