BISMARCK — North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum is expected to announce on Tuesday, July 14, reopening guidelines for the state's K-12 schools for the 2020-21 school year.

Burgum's announcement on schools will come as the state weathers a rising number of active COVID-19 cases and virus-related hospitalizations. More than 700 North Dakota residents are currently infected with the illness, though the state's rate of positive tests remains lower than in virus hot spots like Florida and Texas.

West Fargo Public Schools administrators wrote in an email to parents and staff that Burgum will likely deliver guidance to schools on Tuesday. Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki confirmed that the governor will address the topic at a press conference at 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, but he declined to give any specifics on what the announcement will include. The press conference will be streamed live on InForum.com.

The reopening guidelines will be available to the public either late Tuesday evening or Wednesday morning, said North Dakota Department of Public Instruction spokesman Dale Wetzel, in an email.

Burgum ordered all schools in the state closed on March 15, a few days after the state saw its first case of COVID-19. Several weeks later, every school in the state introduced a distinct distance learning plan.

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Schools remained closed through the end of the school year, however all were allowed to reopen starting June 1 for attendance-limited summer classes, driver's education, child care and standardized testing preparation. Burgum called the summer plan a "soft opening" in anticipation of a larger-scale reopening in the fall.

The governor has noted previously that in devising a reopening blueprint, officials must consider that some students, teachers and school staff are vulnerable to suffering a serious illness from COVID-19. However, Burgum has also stated that he would like to see as many students as possible return to in-person classes in the fall.

Mike Heilman, executive director of North Dakota Small Organized Schools — an organization that represents rural schools in the state — said many rural school districts are in favor of in-person instruction, especially because there are few COVID-19 cases in their counties.

"First and foremost, (superintendents) want everybody to be safe," Heilman said. "Their first charge is safety for the children that they educate, but if they can do that and if they can ensure (students') safety to the best of their ability in this environment, then they'd like to be back in school face-to-face."

The key to reopening schools is to ensure districts have access to specific and reliable data about coronavirus prevalence in the area, said Nick Archuleta, president of North Dakota United, a labor union that represents educators and public employees. Ultimately, the goal is to not just reopen schools in the fall, but to keep them open the whole school year, he said.

To make sure schools have the resources to keep everyone healthy, Archuleta said, the federal and state government will need to provide adequate funding. He said he favors everyone wearing masks while in school, and that he encourages districts to follow Centers for Disease Control guidelines to ensure safety.

Wetzel said last month that the guidelines for schools will likely include a high degree of local control that allows school board officials and superintendents to make decisions based on the prevalence of COVID-19 in their community.

Contact Jeremy Turley at jturley@forumcomm.com or on Twitter at @jeremyjturley. Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, can be reached at mgriffith@forumcomm.com.

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