FARGO — The Fargo Public Schools committee responsible for deciding instructional levels during the COVID-19 pandemic voted 12-3 on Monday, Jan. 11, to bring all students back to in-person instruction five days a week starting next week.

Before the vote, middle and high school students were under a hybrid system with some remote classes and some in-person classes, and elementary students had in-person instruction four days a week.

“There isn’t a safety benefit between four days of in-person instruction versus five,” Superintendent Rupak Gandhi said.

Acknowledging that the new schedule, to begin Tuesday, Jan. 19 (a four-day school week because of Martin Luther King Jr. Day), is not a “new normal” yet, the Fargo Public Schools COVID-19 Instructional Plan Committee will meet again on Feb. 8 for a status check.

Data shows that positive cases across Cass County and in schools are decreasing. Teacher substitution rates have also improved, said Douglas Andring, district director of human resources.

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Five staff tested positive for COVID-19 last week, and 13 staff were out due to the virus as of Sunday, Jan. 10, Andring said. The district currently has 1.72% unfilled absences, a significant decrease from last year of 17.20%, he said.

A total of 27 teachers and paraeducators were under quarantine, said Mackenzie McCormick, the district's safety and emergency management coordinator. As of Sunday, 21 students were in isolation due to a positive test result, and 54 students were in quarantine after being exposed to a positive COVID-19 case.

Teachers are in line for vaccinations which may begin in February, said Brenton Nesemeier, an epidemiologist with the state of North Dakota.

Three members of the committee voted against students resuming full-time in-person instruction. Shane Martin, principal of Ben Franklin Middle School, agreed with middle school teacher Kathy Schott and elementary school teacher Jamison Jensen that the district should stay in a hybrid learning model, or at most have in-person instruction four days a week instead of five.

“I feel like I need more time to go back full," Martin said. "We still need to socially distance. We know it’s safer to have smaller groups of kids. Social distancing is still a necessity in our community and in our schools. Immunizations are on the horizon but not a reality. Why wouldn’t we consider continuing the model that we are in, only until social distancing isn’t necessary and only when immunizations become a reality for our students and staff?”

Tracie Newman, a pediatrician who's a committee member and sits on the Fargo School Board, argued that schools should not link instructional levels with community spread.

“Schools should still remain the last-ditch effort in closing. If our rates go up again, we need to take every other community measure before closing schools,” Newman said.

“It’s a success that we are able to bring our students back,” Gandhi said. “But if it’s not working, we will adjust. It is difficult. Our teachers are going through a lot right now. It’s not been easy to be a member of this committee and make these decisions.”

West Fargo Public Schools is currently using on-site instruction for grades 1-6, with Wednesdays as distance learning days. If the data continues to trend favorably, all grades will attend in-person classes starting Jan. 25, according to the district.

Currently, Moorhead Area Public Schools pre-K through second-grade students are in in-person learning. Grades 3-8 are in hybrid learning, and high school students are in distance learning until Jan. 25, when they will switch to part-time in-person instruction. On Jan. 19, middle school students will return to in-person classes.