Distance education, which is also referred to as “distance learning,” is not a new concept rolled out exclusively in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, though many schools across the country have enacted forms of distance education in their schools to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 33% of college students were taking at least one course via distance education prior to the pandemic and remote learning has become a popular alternative for many K-12 students in recent years.

However, some are concerned that distance education is doing more harm than good for the younger students in the K-12 education system, especially those in elementary schools.

A new study reported on by The Washington Post found that some of the largest school systems in the country indicated that children being kept out of school and in remote learning environments had seen a noticeable crippling of their capacity for learning.

According to the study, some public school systems had between the end of the 2019-2020 academic year and present, seen “the percentage of F’s earned by middle school and high school students jump from 6 percent of all grades to 11 percent — representing an overall increase of 83 percent from 2019 to 2020,”

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While the expressed results centered on a school system in Virginia, the results were consistent across multiple districts nationwide, including middle-schoolers exhibiting a 300% increase in failing grades, while high-schoolers rose by 50%.

The study concluded that interacting with peers was an important social and emotional development tool and that many children relied on the school system to provide meals and opportunities for physical activity, outside the home. Most notably, the study found that teachers were important role models and adult figures in kids’ lives, and that the absence of this relationship may have contributed to the increases in failing grades rising.

In North Dakota the risks and benefits of in-person education have been cautiously considered by many schools and boards, their choices being varied based on the threats in their respective areas.

Currently 111,857 students are enrolled in the public K-12 education system across the state, according to the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction. Of those students, 55,912 (50.0%) are engaged in face-to-face only education; 34,518 (30.9%) are engaged in a hybrid schedule; and 21,484 (19.2%) are engaged in distance learning only — a number sure to rise following Bismarck Public Schools announcement on Wednesday, Dec. 16.

The Bismarck Public Schools COVID Team and Bismarck Burleigh Public Health released a statement Wednesday concerning their plans to return to face-to-face education full-time in January. The return to in-person education will see Bismarck depart from their current hybrid learning model and return to normalcy with in-person education.

Masks will remain a requirement in Bismarck schools in accordance with Gov. Doug Burgum’s mandates.

In Dickinson, Superintendent Shon Hocker, Dickinson Public Schools, released a video statement in late November, in which he commended students and staff for their continued support as the school maintains its hybrid learning model.

“Everyone is wondering when is DPS going to go back to full-time face-to-face, and I can’t say this enough that I want you to know that we absolutely want our students back in school full-time face-to-face just as soon as possible,” Hocker said. “There are many indicators that we need to consider before doing that. We’ve been very fortunate in our board's approach with this hybrid learning, and although not necessarily ideal we really believe it's been the best of both situations.”

Hocker explained how the hybrid model has provided DPS with the ability to avoid closing classrooms and the school completely, despite other schools having to transition to full-time online as a result of outbreaks.

Dickinson School Board heard a presentation in early November, before the mask mandates and spike in cases, about clinical research from Jill Healy, who is the CEO for Trial Runners.

"I represent a community here in Dickinson that is concerned about COVID, but also very concerned about kids getting back into the classroom," said Healy.

She said her company would create a data safety monitoring board to make recommendations on educational delivery (face-to-face, hybrid, virtual learning) based on data.

These research professionals would create risk variables to help the school district return students to face-to-face instruction without the fear of what could happen as a result.

She said possible recommendations could include continuing face-to-face learning, continue face-to-face learning with suggestions or continue face-to-face learning with mandatory changes.

While the school board unanimously approved a partnership with Healy, the district remains in ongoing discussions concerning a potential future return to face-to-face education.

In a statement to The Press on Thursday, Hocker said they would monitor the holiday cases and discuss a return to full-time face-to-face instruction during their January board meeting.

"We know that having students back full-time face-to-face, five-day instruction is best for most of our students, and we are actively having conversations about returning our students as soon as possible. Our local health officials' recommendation is to monitor the impact the holiday break has on our community COVID cases and make a decision at the January board meeting. We understand the challenges hybrid learning has on our parents, and we are eager to get our students back in the buildings full-time.”