BISMARCK — In many aspects of North Dakota's battle with the COVID-19 pandemic, the state has given local communities control in deciding the best ways to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Now, there’s one more aspect of the pandemic that the state is allowing communities to tackle at their own discretion — student learning loss.

It’s been more than a year since the first cases of COVID-19 were identified in North Dakota. Since then, many K-12 students have had to adjust to the difficulties of online instruction, and parents have witnessed children struggle with the disruptions that came with the global pandemic.

Unlike many states still in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, North Dakota has seen a dramatic return to the classroom with 86% of K-12 students receiving in-person instruction as of Tuesday, March 30.

Throughout 2020, many students transitioned in and out of distance learning, in-person instruction and a hybrid of the two, and because each district did something different, education stakeholders say a "one-size-fits-all" approach to closing the pandemic learning gap won't work.

“Any learning gaps that resulted from pandemic disruptions may not be consistent across all districts, and therefore an approach that allows for localized decision-making for how best to address such gaps is appropriate,” said Mike Nowatzki, a spokesman for Gov. Doug Burgum.

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Last month, the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction created a set of 19 recommendations schools can implement to help students with learning recovery and provide emotional support. The department estimates 27% to 28% of students who tested on par with their grade level in fall 2019 tested below their grade level in fall 2020 in reading, writing and math.

Many education stakeholders agree it’s important the state doesn’t implement a blanket approach to getting students back on track, according to the recommendations. That said, there are a few specific recommendations the North Dakota Legislature is contemplating adding to state law for K-12 schools to adopt.

Last month, the House of Representatives adopted an amendment to require school districts to have one full-time equivalent counselor for K-6 students — an emotional support vessel that's not present for many students in primary schools throughout North Dakota.

The House also adopted an amendment to allow a school to have someone trained and credentialed to become a health technician if the school does not employ a nurse. Lawmakers felt it was important to allow all schools to have a person to assist students in administering medication or treat small injuries procured during the school day, said Rep. David Monson, R-Osnabrock, who is also chairman of the Education and Environment Division of the House Appropriations Committee.

“Now with … (COVID-19) it has become very apparent that a trained health technician in the absence of a school nurse is probably a very good idea,” Monson said in a statement.

Throughout the pandemic, schools received federal funds to help maintain COVID-19 mitigation strategies and offer learning and emotional support. The massive federal stimulus packages approved by Congress included allocations for public schools.

North Dakota was allotted almost $475 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds, Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler testified to the House last month.

The North Dakota Legislature is finalizing how much each district should be allocated and the situations in which the money should be used, but the funds dictate schools with a greater number of students enrolled in free and reduced lunch will receive more funds per student, Baesler said.

Disruption to student learning is by no means unique to North Dakota. Where the pandemic has reached, it’s likely student learning has been hindered to some degree.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published findings earlier this month from a survey of parents of 5-to-12-year-old children which found parents who said their children received distance or a combination of distance and in-person instruction reported worse scores for “indicators concerning child mental health and physical activity and parental emotional distress” than did the parents of children who received in-person instruction.

On Thursday, April 1, the National Governors Association announced a plan to collaborate with North Dakota and five other states on strategies for "equitably meeting the social-emotional needs of students and families" during the pandemic, according to a statement from Burgum's office.

The state will receive technical assistance and grant support to carry out plans focused on students' development, the release said.

"North Dakota’s project is centered on tying together social-emotional needs and workforce readiness, including through the North Dakota Education to Workforce Pathways through SEL (Social and Emotional Learning) Coalition, as well as building capacity for the state to expand and implement North Dakota SEL Network efforts," according to the release.

The partnership will run through March 2022.

In Minnesota, Gov. Tim Walz is advocating for the state Legislature to pass a $150 million summer learning package that would give schools funds to expand summer programs and mental health support for students, among other proposals to help with student learning.

Coming into the summer months, many schools in North Dakota are contending with the best ways to serve their students.

For the approximately 450 students in the St. Johns School District near the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in the northern part of the state, additional tutoring and academic support will be offered.

At the St. Johns School District, which primarily used distance learning throughout the pandemic, students experienced pandemic learning loss, said Superintendent Paul Frydenlund.

"We've definitely had academic learning loss since last March," he said.

The district will implement a summer program geared toward tutoring and helping students catch up on what they may have lagged behind on throughout the school year, Frydenlund said. In a normal year, the summer program is targeted toward teaching students through projects or outdoor exploration, he said.

In Devils Lake, students experienced a variety of in-person, distance and hybrid learning throughout the pandemic. Superintendent Matt Bakke said learning loss exacerbated by the pandemic hasn't been prominent in Devils Lake schools, though teachers and administrators are anticipating a learning gap to appear sometime in the future.

"Especially our younger learners, as they start growing up and get into the older elementary levels, then I think that's where it's going to catch up to us a little bit," Bakke said. "I think it's more of an anticipated learning gap."

Nick Archuleta, president of North Dakota United, an educators and public workers union with about 11,500 members, said it's important districts analyze the needs of their students and support them in the best ways they see fit.

"It all depends on which community you're in," Archuleta said.

Readers can reach Forum News Service reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at mgriffith@forumcomm.com.