Ranked as the No. 1 school in Stark County and No. 8 overall for North Dakota high schools, South Heart Public School is now moving forward with its own virtual academy to accommodate students that want to continue their education online.

During a special meeting, the South Heart School Board unanimously approved the creation of the South Heart K-12 Virtual Academy Wednesday. Though the offsets of the coronavirus pandemic prompted the school to implement virtual learning via the North Dakota Center for Distance Education, Superintendent Calvin Dean remarked that this virtual academy is intended to be a more permanent choice for students moving forward.

“I think it's a really nice option. We were kind of thrown into this when COVID first started; everybody was in North Dakota and throughout the nation. (But) one of the positives that came out was that a lot of students did very well,” Dean said. “In some particular cases, we found out that we had teachers that really enjoyed doing the online teaching as well. We actually saw students in our school that sometimes struggled academically, but when we went to the online thing that was kind of forced upon us with COVID-related issues, those same students actually really did well… Maybe the traditional school setting doesn't work for a child, but here's another option that might work really well for that child and I think that that's just a win-win for everybody.”

In the fall of 2020, South Heart Public School initially resumed classes without mandating masks. However, in late September, the North Dakota Department of Health issued new guidance for schools and establishments. At that time, South Heart was dealing with several quarantine issues and there was a substantial number of students absent from school, Dean said, adding that it then led to the school board adopting the mask requirement for the next four months until Gov. Doug Burgum lifted the mask requirement.

South Heart Public School Superintendent Calvin Dean explains how the virtual academy will work for the school district during a special school board meeting Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021. Following discussion, the school board unanimously approved the creation of the South Heart K-12 Virtual Academy, which now awaits approval from the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction. (Jackie Jahfetson / The Dickinson Press)
South Heart Public School Superintendent Calvin Dean explains how the virtual academy will work for the school district during a special school board meeting Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021. Following discussion, the school board unanimously approved the creation of the South Heart K-12 Virtual Academy, which now awaits approval from the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction. (Jackie Jahfetson / The Dickinson Press)

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Following Burgum’s executive order on April 30 that ended statewide Covid-19 emergency declaration and all related Covid-19 executive orders, the South Heart School Health and Safety Smart Restart Plan implemented during the 2020-2021 school year was rescinded by the school board on May 12.

After much feedback from the community and parents, Dean noted that the school board felt it was vital to resume the 2021-2022 school year normally.

“As of right now, we don’t have any requirements or mandates. We don’t have a safety plan in place that was required last year. Basically, we’re just asking families that when there is a COVID-related situation — whether it’s somebody that’s positive for COVID or they’ve been identified as a close contact — to communicate with the (North Dakota) Department of Health or their health care provider and work through it that way,” Dean said.

School officials will continue monitoring the Covid-19 situation as it relates directly to North Dakota and more specifically to the South Heart community and South Heart Public School, according to its school announcement. If the situation changes and the state sets requirements or mandates, the South Heart Public School will abide accordingly, Dean added.

“(The) mental health of students and staff and everything that we’ve been through for the last 18 months has really been a strain on people. And so, a lot of this is just based upon the wishes of our community as well,” Dean added.

With the approval of the virtual academy, South Heart students who wish to enroll will soon have that opportunity following the approval from the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction. Dean remarked that it is going to be a different school year, but a hopeful one.

“We're made aware of some situations because parents will notify us and stuff like that. But overall, the school year has started really, really well,” Dean said. “It feels great to have what feels like a very normal school year at this point. The students are excited to be here. The staff is excited to be here. I know parents are excited to have students back in school operating on a normal basis. So overall, things are going well. We've gotten off to a great start and we're looking forward to a great year.”