FARGO — The Fargo Public Schools committee responsible for setting instructional levels during the coronavirus pandemic met Monday, Nov. 16, and wrestled with the idea of returning to distance learning, but decided that the rest of the first semester will remain in the current hybrid models.

While North Dakota saw an increase of nearly 200 positive cases over the weekend and now has a total of 743 deaths from COVID-19, Fargo schools aren’t reflecting case rates in the wider community, Superintendent Rupak Gandhi said.

Votes from members of Fargo's COVID-19 Instructional Plan Committee were nearly split in determining the instructional levels, but depending on continued staffing shortages or potential outbreaks, elementary schools will stay at four days a week in-person instruction with “rolling closures” as needed.

Middle and high schools will continue in their current hybrid model for the rest of the semester.

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The term rolling closures is one Gandhi used to describe the possibility for individual buildings needing to shut down due to staffing shortages or outbreaks. The lack of teachers, paraeducators and other staff, including custodians, has risen to nearly twice the number the district experienced at the same time last year, according to Douglas Andring, the district's director of human resources.

The plan to bring all students back to in-person instruction on Jan. 19 is still possible, but much depends on how the community celebrates the upcoming holiday season.

Brenton Nesemeier, an epidemiologist with the state Department of Health who is focused on Cass County, said he’s seen a rise in cases of young people under 20 years old, and that the coronavirus has “crept” back into the county’s assisted living centers.

“The majority of our hospitalizations are those with underlying conditions and from long-term care, but we’ve had people who were perfectly healthy before going in as well,” Nesemeier said. “We have seen an increase in positivity in those under 18, which has increased since the Halloween holiday.”

Fargo Public Schools reported that 19 staff members and 41 students were out last week due to positive tests. There were 114 staff members and 259 students out because they were in quarantine.

The percentage of days that cannot be filled by teachers, paraeducators and substitute teachers has nearly doubled in the past two weeks, with 39% of teacher positions, 65% of paraeducator positions and 72% of substitute teacher positions unable to be filled.

“We’re clearly almost double what we were last year right now,” Andring said.

Many members of the COVID-19 Instructional Plan Committee shared that teachers and staff were exhausted. Because of the demand for filling in gaps, teachers no longer have preparation time, said Rebecca Folden, principal of Clara Barton Hawthorne Elementary.

“I have nine staff out and two are filled, and I don’t know what I’m going to do today. After this meeting, I’m putting my job on hold and I’m going to be a teacher today. This is extremely exhausting. Our staff are at a breaking point and we’re relying on the same people every day to do this,” Folden said.

While most cases of COVID-19 among children can be traced back to the home or community spread, a majority of in-school infection has come from involvement with sports teams, and not from inside the classrooms, Nesemeier said.

Tracie Newman, a pediatrician who's a member of the committee and the Fargo School Board, attended a meeting with Fargo and West Fargo public school officials and local and state health authorities last week to discuss the potential impacts on children due to the recent rise in county cases.

Citing guidance from the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia’s research policy laboratory, middle and high schools should revert back to all or partial distance learning in areas hard hit by the pandemic. Elementary school decisions should be made at the local level, basing plans on in-school transmission rates only.

“There was really a shift in their recommendations last week. I think this was due to the accelerated nationwide transmission rates we’re seeing,” Newman said.

“More and more of the data that children, particularly older youth, are testing positive and we know this can accelerate transmission to older adults who are more susceptible to severe infection. And this was really a different transmission dynamic than we observed last spring,” she said.

The research team also believes that Halloween contributed greatly to the recent rise across the nation, and Newman is worried about other upcoming holidays.