FARGO — With much of a seven-hour discussion revolving around how many in-person days students should have under the threat of the global coronavirus pandemic, the Fargo School Board passed the district's Smart Restart Plan 7-2 on Thursday, July 30.

Board members David Paulson and Jennifer Benson voted against the 82-page plan.

One major sticking point between board members was that the plan called for more in-person classes in elementary grades compared to fewer face-to-face classes in middle and high schools when the district is at the most complicated risk level: Level 3. Elementary students would then utilize some secondary buildings in a program called guided practice centers.

In total, the new plan has five risk levels, with Level 1 being shelter in place and Level 5 being the “new normal” with few restrictions. School board members are still unsure what risk level school will reopen at, but since the plan is official, the decision can now be made by the COVID-19 committee, which is composed of 16 individuals. The committee’s first meeting starts on Aug. 10, and they will meet once every two weeks, Superintendent Rupak Gandhi said.

A graph of the differing risk levels for the 2020 to 2021 school year in Fargo Public Schools. Screenshot of FPS board meeting
A graph of the differing risk levels for the 2020 to 2021 school year in Fargo Public Schools. Screenshot of FPS board meeting

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At the Level 3 risk level, middle and high school students would spend 10 days in school during the first semester and six days during the second semester, and the rest of the school days in a distance learning environment, Associate Superintendent Bob Grosz said.

Paulson didn’t agree with the decision, and tried to pass an amendment before a vote was called to increase the number of in-school days to two weeks per quarter. His motion failed.

“I think it’s vital that these kids have more face time with their teachers; I really do,” Paulson said. “We’ve heard so much talk about how we can’t have face-to-face in middle schools and high schools because the risk of contact is just too great. We kind of pick and choose where we want to have contact. If you drive by the Fargo South parking lot, that sucker is full, and those baseball diamonds are packed. We’re going to wedding dances. We’re shoulder to shoulder in bars, and yet it’s too dangerous for us to be in schools."

“In order for me to approve this plan, I need to see more contact at the middle school and high school level,” he said.

Gandhi disagreed, saying that the risks were too great at Level 3.

Jim Johnson, a board member, believes that distance learning should have been the plan from day one, because, “We are going to have a positive case show up during the first week of school; at least I’ll be shocked if we don’t,” Johnson said.

The average interchange between students every day is about 500 classmates, he said.

“These are very social creatures. Kids are not good at social distancing, and really not good as teenagers, and apparently we’re all really not good until about 45 or 55. I think we’re going to be closing schools about as fast as we open schools if we’re not careful with this, mostly because we’re going to have everyone isolating in short order,” Johnson said.

“I think we have too much contact still built in here. Even though contact is the best way for an education, it’s still the best way to spread a disease,” Johnson said.

Grosz defended the plan, saying that struggling students will have “multiple opportunities” to meet with teachers.

“Our goal is to provide in-person instruction to our students when we can,” Gandhi said. “It’s going to be what level of risk do we want to take? The bigger the risks we take, the greater the risks our students and teachers get infected. It’s a very delicate balance.”

President of the Fargo Education Association Jennifer Mastrud believed Paulson’s amendment would help spike virus spread, and she said staff were already apprehensive about the current plan.

“To spend the pendulum in a drastic way would have dire consequences,” Mastrud said.

Guided practice centers

Elementary students will be allowed more in-school days as they can attend guided practice centers, which are currently slated to be held at middle schools and high schools when students aren’t present at the Level 3 risk level. The stability of a schedule when the “main constant is change” will help families who need to work, board President Rebecca Knutson said.

Guided practice centers, like structured study halls, will be run with help from para educators, Gandhi said.

“Our conversation is what are our risk factors coupled with providing guided practice centers. I think it’s a value add, so there is a tug and a pull,” Gandhi said. “From what I know so far, we would be unique if we provide a guidance practice center. I have not seen that in other plans, and I’ve reviewed a lot of plans.”

Newly elected board member Nikkie Gullickson shared a message from a mother of a child in high school wondering why high schools might become day care centers with the guided practice centers.

“I think we did the best we could and offered a great education last spring, but I think this year we will do better with more time and resources that they have,” Gandhi said. “We should be grateful for the fact that we have a school system that can make that transition. Education doesn't stop when we go to distance learning.”

Any first or 12th grader won’t be worse off at the end of the school year under distance learning, Gandhi promised.

“I really hope we do not refer to the guidance practice centers as day care centers,” Knutson said. “Even if we start at Level 3, we might not be at Level 3 the whole time. We might be going from Level 1 to Level 5 throughout the school year, and different buildings might be at different levels.”

“This pandemic has really proven to our society how important public education is,” board member Robin Nelson said. “Our public education needs public support. We are feeding the kids, counseling support, exercise. Let’s not forget about this, voters, because we will come through on the other side.”

The current plan, described as a “living document,” is subject to change, and will put Fargo students back into classrooms or in Zoom meetings by Wednesday, Sept. 2.

Upcoming changes

Changes students and staff will see in the upcoming year will be many, including no working water fountains and the use of ultraviolet lights and environmental foggers. No temperature reading mandates at school entrances will be utilized at this time. Elective and AP classes will be offered to students in the virtual academy and in school.

Todd Olson, director of student activities for Fargo Public Schools, said the High School Activities Association has greatly loosened regulations for participating in extracurricular activities.

“We are going to try and offer kids as many activities as we possibly can in a safe way,” Olson said. Choir and band rooms might be the most dangerous places in school buildings, he said, adding that many parents have contacted him saying that such extracurricular activities are a vital part of education.

“But we’re going to have a small schedule and limited travel for all our activities,” Olson said.

At Level 3 risk level, a hybrid situation, some extracurricular activities may still be available to students with limitations on travel and competition in place, Gandhi said.

Positive protocol

During the summer months, some school programs have shut down for two weeks due to exposure to COVID-19, Olson said.

“Fargo Cass Public Health will take care of a lot of that for us,” Olson said about when a student or staff member is exposed to the coronavirus or tests positive for COVID-19.

Summer school was “learning as we went,” but because of advice from public health officials, protocols are in place, Gandhi said.

“We will share the information we can, but our first priority is to communicate with the involved individuals,” Gandhi said.

“It’s not going to be up to the school district on how to respond, but up to public health,” Nelson said.

“We need emotional support for everyone, including all of us,” Gandhi said. “This is a new environment for all of us.”