Group urges distance learning for all K-12 students in Fargo area
“Distance learning is the right tool to use when you have uncontrolled spread of a virus in your community,” said Lori Cline, an organizer of the Community Alliance for Responsible Education.
FARGO — Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, music teacher Lori Cline has taught from home, but the physical distance has not stopped her from bringing her Moorhead High School students together in concert .
Online. Socially distant. Safe. In a world where the coronavirus travels by air, “drastic measures for a short period of time” are needed, Cline said, so she learned how to edit recorded videos and compiled them into an online fall concert, which to her, is creative proof that schools can change learning models effectively and remain safe.
“It was like magic for them to hear themselves singing together, but being apart,” she said.
Cline has helped foster a growing grassroots movement online called CARE, the Community Alliance for Responsible Education . The group started out with 30 core members around Nov. 20, and now has a following of over 740 on Facebook.
The core organizers are teachers, paraeducators and parents from Fargo, West Fargo, Moorhead, Bismarck, Mandan, Northern Cass and other school districts, who want science and reliable sources to inform schools' pandemic-related decisions, said Cline, whose children have graduated from area schools.
Moorhead public schools, where Cline teaches, have students in distance learning through winter break. Because of the community spread of COVID-19 and the lack of student testing for the virus, Cline and the CARE group want school districts across the area, including Fargo and West Fargo, to switch all students to distance learning for the holiday season.
“Distance learning is the right tool to use when you have uncontrolled spread of a virus in your community,” Cline said. “Teachers need a safe place to teach, students need a safe place to learn, parents need a safe place for their kids to learn while they work."
One issue CARE is focused on is asking why schools aren’t following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to quarantine close contacts when both people are wearing masks. CDC guidelines say that everyone should stay home and isolate after being exposed to someone with COVID-19, masked or not masked.
“We know that those mitigation strategies act like Swiss cheese — they all have holes in them. The thing that the anti-maskers got right is that masks don’t work perfectly. That’s why we need to stay six feet apart while wearing our masks,” Cline said.
In Fargo and West Fargo schools, administrators are following state guidelines that say if both parties are wearing masks and one tests positive, then there's no quarantine requirement. If either or both people are not wearing masks, then both must quarantine.
CARE also disagrees with guidance saying teachers, as essential workers, can continue working if they test positive for COVID-19 and if they're asymptomatic. Fargo and West Fargo school districts are not following the guideline, however, as they're not allowing teachers or staff who test positive for COVID-19 to go back to work. On Tuesday evening, Dec. 8, CARE members gathered outside South High School holding flashlights in a show of support for teachers and students.
North Dakota made national headlines this fall by leading the U.S. in active COVID-19 cases per capita. Although positive cases have declined in North Dakota, the state's pandemic death toll continues to rise, with a total of 1,130 deaths as of Friday, Dec. 11.
COVID-19 in the schools
Last week, Fargo Public Schools reported that 31 students and eight staff tested positive for COVID-19, with a total of 47 students and 21 staff out due to positive tests. Also, 178 students and 69 staff were under quarantine as close contacts of COVID-19 cases.
West Fargo Public Schools reported 15 elementary students tested positive for COVID-19, and a total of 120 elementary students were under quarantine. Another 13 middle school students tested positive, and 60 were under quarantine. In high schools, eight students tested positive, and 63 were under quarantine.
Eleven West Fargo School District staff tested positive for COVID-19, and 47 staff were under quarantine.
One data point that Fargo Public Schools used to help determine instructional levels at the beginning of the school year was the 14-day positive case rate per 10,000 people in Cass County, which was at 25.3 in early September.
That number quickly climbed above 42 in mid-September, and then above 57 in October, surpassing the rate at which the district's Smart Restart plan called for distance learning.
On Friday, the county's 14-day positive case rate per 10,000 people dropped to 143, almost half of what it was on Nov. 23, said Brenton Nesemeier, a state epidemiologist.
The data point was just one of the considerations to switch to distance learning as school officials said new data emerged later in the school year that suggested schools were not the so-called superspreaders they were believed to be.
"We still look at it, but we're also looking at how our schools are faring, and individual classrooms, and we're not seeing the superspreader events at our schools," Nesemeier said.
Many people question the data, as students are not regularly tested for COVID-19, Cline said. “That’s the only way we’re going to have evidence that COVID is not being transmitted in our schools,” she said.
Cline pointed to New York City , where public schools have begun reopening and students must undergo COVID-19 testing or stay in distance learning.
Remote or in-person?
Some area school districts have made the move to distance learning, including Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, Breckenridge, Barnesville, Perham and Detroit Lakes. Many districts, like Fargo and West Fargo, have given students the option of enrolling in all-virtual academies.
The Fargo School District plans to continue part-time in-person classes through the holiday season, and is on track to bring all students back to classrooms full-time in January. West Fargo Public Schools also is continuing their hybrid model, but will monitor holiday data closely.
In Fargo, factors that could push the district to a form of distance learning include: if student absences go north of 5%, according to Superintendent Rupak Gandhi, if teacher and substitute teacher fill rates worsen, and if positive case numbers climb inside schools.
West Fargo Public Schools spokesperson Heather Leas pointed to the district’s website for information, which states the district continues to plan to increase in-person instruction for elementary students because of current mitigation strategies and a “lack of evidence of school-based transmission.”
CARE isn't limiting its scope to education. The group also wants local and state officials to make education a priority by shutting down parts of the community like bars and restaurants.
"We would like our city commissioners at the same time to put in place more restrictions in our community to make an all-for-one effort to reduce this uncontrolled spread of the virus," Cline said. "We need some drastic measures for a short period of time."