BISMARCK — With about a month and a half until many North Dakota public schools start, officials are planning to give school districts more control over the decision to pursue in-person or remote instruction based on the prevalence of COVID-19 in their area.

These updated recommendations have not yet been made public, and the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction and the governor's office plan to release official statewide guidelines for fall reopening in mid-July.

"We expect these changes will incorporate a significant element of local control," NDDPI spokesman Dale Wetzel said in an email. "This means whether a school may reopen will depend on the presence and spread of COVID-19 in the community, or the lack of it."

Gov. Doug Burgum said at a June 23 news conference that coronavirus testing needs to be a factor in the reopening of schools, especially because many have vulnerable populations. The governor will have final approval of the fall reopening guidelines, Wetzel said.

Amelia Walter completes distance-learning schoolwork while her mom, Marguerite Walter, feeds her brother, Elliott, during the pandemic. Special to The Forum
Amelia Walter completes distance-learning schoolwork while her mom, Marguerite Walter, feeds her brother, Elliott, during the pandemic. Special to The Forum

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Fargo Public Schools plans to give students an option of continuing online distance learning or in-person instruction, as long as online instruction is still allowed by the governor.

"We are planning on giving our students and families that option, so we don't know what the proportions are going to be, but we do know that we might start the school year with ... a group of students who choose to continue the school year distance learning," said Fargo Public Schools Superintendent Rupak Gandhi.

Gandhi said the district does not have further information about what that looks like, just that they think students will have an option of online or in-person instruction.

Cass County had more than 2,200 confirmed coronavirus cases as of Monday, June 29, and about 2,050 have recovered.

In a letter to parents and staff Monday, West Fargo Public Schools Superintendent Beth Slette wrote that, "One of the most critical pieces of information we need is the allowable size of classroom groups for fall. While we have received no official notification at this time, we believe it is likely that a full reopening with all students onsite every day may not be allowed by the state."

If there is a partial reopening, the district would need to know "the intention of our families for returning to school this fall," Slette wrote. The district plans to send families a survey to help gauge their intentions.

While many schools are waiting until the state releases official reopening guidelines, some have decided to transition back to in-person instruction, at least at the start of the school year.

One of those is Hettinger Public School in Adams County in southwestern North Dakota — one of the state's four remaining counties with zero coronavirus cases.

"There is still a lot up in the air right now, but we do plan on attending in person, but with social distancing in place as well as teaching and practicing good hygiene," said Ryan Moser, Hettinger Public School's superintendent, in an email. "At this point we have not had a confirmed case, which provides us more freedom than areas that are hit with significant cases, but we still have 6 weeks until the start of our school year and a lot can change."

Earlier this month, Minnesota's Department of Education directed school districts to plan for three scenarios: all students returning to school buildings following current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines; implementing a distance-learning model as done before; or implementing a hybrid model.

Minnesota officials said they would make a final decision during the last week in July.

Once the Fargo School District does have a better idea of what its reopening plan will look like, Gandhi said it will send a survey to staff and students to get a better understanding of how the community feels about the return to school.

Though some people are eager to get back to a new normal, Gandhi said he thinks the majority of people understand that schools can potentially have a large impact on the coronavirus spread within the community.

He also said he is grateful to parents and families for their flexibility and understands that the uncertainty of the upcoming school year is difficult.

"We are working to share information as fast as we can, but it changes and there are just some things that we don't know yet," Gandhi said.

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