Fargo students 'stand up,' ask administrators to reconsider return to full-time in-person classes
Students at Fargo North and Davies high schools speak out against going back to full-time in-person learning.
FARGO — Amid the hubbub of committee meetings, COVID-19 data, social distancing and masks, few people have stopped to ask what students want to do.
According to a recent student-led survey conducted at Fargo North High School, 66.8% of 345 students surveyed there believe it’s too early to return to full-time in-person instruction. Fargo North has 956 students, according to the district’s website.
“The day is finally coming upon us: Fargo Public Schools has gone back to full in-person learning for the first time since March 13, 2020,” wrote Samantha Jackson, a senior at Fargo North and a writer with The Scroll, the school’s newspaper.
Kim Kadrmas, editor-in-chief of The Scroll, was also involved in publishing the survey.
The survey came after the Fargo Public Schools COVID-19 Instructional Plan Committee decided to bring all students back for full-time in-person instruction starting Jan. 19.
“Teachers and adults all seem to have the idea in their head that the students want to be back in school full time and how our mental health will improve so much by being at school five days a week. However, this is not the case for the majority of students right here at Fargo North,” Jackson wrote.
The survey was conducted with guidance from a statistics teacher, and Jackson, as president of the student body, also sent a letter to Superintendent Rupak Gandhi.
“Though I realize you all have the numbers and statistics to look at, I plead that you look at what the students who are being put at direct risk have to say,” Jackson wrote.
In a phone interview, Jackson said she was preparing to speak before the school board Tuesday, Jan. 12, but felt defeated.
"I hope that they can listen to us and make change from that. We're the ones out there risking our health for education," she said. "I hope that they can turn it around, but I also don't want to be naïve."
Some are preparing to return to classrooms with 30 students, she said, which is evoking a range of emotions.
"Scared, worried, nervous. A lot of it is scared of getting COVID and potentially putting our families at risk, but a lot of it is we are worried about our mental well being," Jackson said. "I know it differs between people, but for me, I'm more concerned about going back and being overwhelmed than seeing my friends. I know if we put the time in now we can get through this and things will be resolved so much quicker."
In response to the students' concerns, Gandhi said the district struggles with the differing perspectives between students, staff and guidance from health care experts.
"We know that we will not be able to be socially distant when students return, but as of now, the data is showing that even without that ability, schools are transmitting the virus at relatively low rates. We are also working with Fargo Cass Public Health to determine vaccinations for our staff and looking at the information being shared with them for our decision making," Gandhi said.
"We are constantly being inundated with research about how the mental health of students suffer more during distance or hybrid learning models than in-person instruction," he said. "This is different than the conclusion from the data you presented, which creates a bigger challenge."
Many students who filled in the survey also took the time to write out their thoughts on why they opposed going back to in-person classes.
“We're never going to get over the virus if we keep falling for the same loop, when the numbers are low that's because we are taking precautions, low numbers should never be used as a reason to open up schools until the threat is eliminated,” a student wrote.
Another student wrote, “Going 100% in-person is not a good decision. Staying hybrid is working very well, so why try and fix a thing that isn't broken?”
A petition on Change.org , written at noon on Tuesday, Jan. 12, by Davies High School students Andy Tao, Melinda Chen and Lizzie Starosta, is also asking school administrators to keep students in part-time in-person instruction. Four hours after the petition was uploaded online, more than 600 people had signed it.
Tao, a junior at Davies High School, said he helped write the petition because adults need to “wake up” and listen to the fears students are dealing with on a daily basis.
“The student body at Davies and I believe it’s shared throughout FPS — we don’t feel comfortable going back full time. Schools as-is are not socially distanced enough. We would definitely be breaking CDC guidelines. Our options are very limited,” he said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have maintained social distances from three to six feet must be kept in addition to other preventative measures in indoor settings to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
While students have options not to attend in-person classes, such as the Virtual Academy, many are dissatisfied with the program and some necessary courses are not being offered, Tao said.
“We just want our voices to be heard as youth," he said. "It’s sickening that our education has been controlled by adults, and don’t get me wrong, we love them, but it has come to a point that we have to stand up. Right now, it doesn’t make sense."
Online, some critics have painted school-aged children as wanting to escape full-time in-person instruction.
In most cases, Tao said, nothing could be further from the truth.
“It’s wrong to generalize the younger generation that we’re trying to be lazy or not going to school, when in reality we want to go back to in-person. Obviously, because of COVID, we have to separate reality and what is actually happening and what we want," he said. "The administration wants us to go in person and wear masks, when in reality they don’t know the outcome of it."
“The main takeaway on why the adults want to go back to in-person school is because they think COVID cases are happening outside of schools, therefore, according to their logic, to bring everyone back wouldn’t make a big difference. But I don’t think that you can stretch that logic that far; it doesn’t make sense to me and to the 600 people that signed the petition,” Tao said.
Fargo Education Association President Jennifer Mastrud said the students' concern "echoes" what her organization said in the past.
Lori Cline, a piano teacher and organizer of a local group of parents and teachers called CARE, Community Alliance for Responsible Education, broached the subject with board members Tuesday, saying she was “honored tonight to speak on behalf of teachers, parents, school staff and others who do not feel free to speak up. ”
Cline also said she was pleased to speak in support of Fargo students who have “begun to speak up for themselves.”
She requested the committee responsible for setting instructional levels be disbanded and that the school board begin making decisions. Among other requests, she asked the school board to adhere to social distancing guidelines or modify classrooms.
“They will be sitting face to face. They will be sitting closer than three feet for hours while they’re in school next week. And their teachers will be in close contact with them in their classrooms for hours,” Cline said.
In addition to addressing the school board, Cline sent an open letter to the committee, the district’s school board and the Fargo Public Schools superintendent and associate superintendents.
While this was not the first time the group’s concerns were brought to the district’s attention, Cline believes this time she may be too late. The group’s previous petitions have left them with “broken promises,” she said.
“I think that those of us who continue to speak are speaking just because we can’t say nothing. We can’t just let this pass and say nothing at all, and I think that’s where students are, as well,” she said.