BISMARCK — Bismarck Public Schools voted 5-0 on Thursday, July 30, to begin the 2020-21 school year with full-time, in-person learning for its K-12 students.

The school board for the state's largest school district approved the plan with little discussion, emphasizing the importance of in-person instruction for students' development and growth.

Though the board voted to begin the school year face-to-face, the prevalence of COVID-19 will determine what kind of instruction the district pursues to start. The official school start date is Aug. 31, meaning in the month before the school year starts, the district will consult with local health officials and it may opt for hybrid or distance learning depending on the number of positive COVID-19 cases in the Bismarck metropolitan area.

Students will be required to wear masks when maintaining a social distance of 6 feet is not possible.

"My feelings are to do whatever it takes to get us face-to-face," said board President Karl Lembke. "If that means that we have some sort of level of requirement of the mask ... we do that (and) I do agree that there's going to be a challenge for all of these people in our buildings to enforce that."

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Although the district, which as of last school year had almost 13,500 students, is planning to begin the school year with in-person instruction, parents can opt for their child to go into full-time distance learning, and students must remain in distance learning for nine weeks or until the end of a grading period. However, for parents to transfer their child into distance learning for the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, they must enroll by July 31 at 4 p.m., according to the district plan.

The reopening plan presented by district Superintendent Jason Hornbacher will be subject to change depending on the prevalence of COVID-19 in the area and on community feedback.

"It's not a matter of if the plan will change, but when the plan will change," Hornbacher said.

Bismarck Public Schools will be in close consultation with Bismarck-Burleigh Public Health to determine what form of instruction is best for students, and depending on the severity of COVID-19 among the community, the district will stick with in-person learning, transition to a hybrid of in-person and online or move to full-time distance learning.

In a survey released last week, the vast majority of K-12 parents in Bismarck were in favor of in-person instruction "without a doubt" or "with precautions" in the fall.

The district has scenarios planned for various forms of instruction, and staff members throughout the Thursday board meeting emphasized different aspects important for each school level.

For example, staff members stated that under all forms of instruction, students in Bismarck's public elementary schools will remain with the same teacher for the entire school year – a solution to a problem many parents experienced in the spring when students would jump from teacher to teacher in their distance learning program.

Throughout the Thursday meeting, Hornbacher and the school board reiterated the importance of keeping students safe throughout the pandemic.

"I want to make sure that we're doing everything we can to ensure that our kids are safe when they're there in the classroom," said board member Donnell Preskey Hushka.

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