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Masks required: DPS releases draft of school reopening plan

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(Graphic by North Dakota Joint Information Center)

Friday evening, Dickinson Public Schools released a draft of its forthcoming plan to reopen schools in the fall, for parental feedback.

“This document presents our most current thinking,” Superintendent Shon Hocker wrote to parents in a letter attached to the plan. “It represents hundreds of hours of research, scenario modeling, and work from DPS’s dedicated and talented staff.”

The plan was drafted with input from parents, teachers, staff and local health officials and took into account feedback from 1,900 survey responses and details precautions the district would take in three different conditions, labeled green, yellow and red.

Under the conditions labeled collectively as “green,” the district’s schools would reopen with all students attending full-time. Both students and employees would be required to wear facial coverings or masks.

“It won’t be provided because of the variety of facial sizes that are required for kids,” Hocker said. “Even kids that are in the same grade level are different sizes and would require different masks … Our plans would be that it would become kind of a school supplies item just like crayons, pencils and paper. Each kid would have a mask that’s comfortable and fits them and their needs.”

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There will be a few masks available at each school in case a student forgets to bring their mask.

“We’re exploring face shields for some of our teachers … For our early grade students, it’s important for them to see a teacher form their mouth and use their tongue properly to say a letter or a word,” Hocker said.

The decision to incorporate masks was made based on guidance from state health officials that is demonstrated in the chart Chance of Transmission, provided by the North Dakota Department of Health. The chance of transmission ranges from “very high,” in which neither an infected or uninfected person wears a mask to “virtually none,” in which both infected and uninfected people stay home.

“We’re relatively comfortable being in that low, very low or virtually none category. We feel like that’s a very nominal risk if you’re in those categories, and to be in the low category, both parties need to wear masks. To get to very low, it’s best that both parties where masks and … social distance.”

Hocker recognized that the decision could be a controversial one.

"Quite frankly, this whole country has turned the mask conversation political, so we know there’s going to be some that say, ‘No way. I’m not having my kid wear a mask.’ For us, at this juncture at least, unless the teachers tell me otherwise, they have said that for them to feel safe, they need the kids masked," he said. "We are trying to strive to meet the very safest categories on that North Dakota Restart that we can, which do include both parties wearing masks … Even though it’s certainly a little controversial … we ask every student to wear a shirt to school … We think for this next fall that a mask is very reasonable as well."

Hocker said that the schools were working on finding opportunities to give their students a break from their masks throughout the day.

"Nobody wants anybody to have to wear a mask for seven or eight hours a day. We know that’s very difficult for people.”

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Also included in the "green" protocols are limiting or cancelling large gatherings, events and assemblies, providing hand sanitizer, frequently disinfecting, limiting shared materials, installing sneeze guards in offices and staggering lunch times.

Under the conditions labeled collectively as “yellow,” the district would implement a hybrid schedule with students attending schools on alternate days, thus limiting the number of students in any building on any given day. On the days they wouldn’t be physically present in school, they would be learning online.

Students would be in cohorts to minimize the number of people with whom they're in contact, staying with the same people for common classes such as English and math.

"It’s not out of the question that maybe those kids stay in that group that they’re with to take those kinds of classes … but then recognizing that probably 20-30% of the time, you’re going to have some kids that are going to take a wood shop class or take a P.E. (class), and then they would obviously have to leave the room," Hocker said. "It’s an idea that we’re exploring at least … There’s no set answers yet."

Under the conditions labeled collectively as “red,” schools in the district would close and shift to remote, online learning for all students.

The shift from one condition to another would be determined based on guidance from health officials as well as local and state government. The plan itself is a living document that may be updated in accordance with new guidance from the North Dakota Governor’s office, the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction, the North Dakota High School Activities Association and local health officials.

For students whose parents don’t feel comfortable sending them back to school, the district will provide a remote, online learning option. By providing their content online has a couple of additional perks as well.

“At any given time a student or more in their class may be asked to stay at home and self-quarantine because maybe a family member has tested positive or they came in close contact with somebody that did test positive. We highly anticipate this next fall that there will be a lot of kids coming and going … We’re needing to create some flexibility, so we’re going to have our teachers teach those face-to-face classes … as though they were also teaching online. That way, if a kid does have to leave the classroom for a couple of weeks, it will be a very smooth transition.”

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This would also make it easier to transition to the “yellow” or “red” models in which students would be in school fewer to no days.

For teachers that may still feel uncomfortable returning to the classroom, Hocker said the district is working on a few ideas for them including face shields and plexi-glass sneeze guards for their desks.

"The reality is the teachers recognize that they're essential staff. They want to be safe, and we want them to be safe ... Our number one priority is safety for our kids and our staff, so we've got to work through to find that," Hocker said.

The district's final plan will be approved by the school board prior to the beginning of school.

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Shon Hocker, superintendent of Dickinson Public Schools. (Kayla Henson / The Dickinson Press)

Related Topics: EDUCATIONDICKINSON PUBLIC SCHOOLSCORONAVIRUS
Kayla Henson is a former Dickinson Press reporter.
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