This back-to-school season is like no other we’ve ever experienced. Educators face unprecedented challenges in preparing a safe return to school in the midst of the continuing coronavirus pandemic.
When the pandemic struck, in March, schools quickly switched to online instruction, a method that has its limitations but was prudent to help contain the highly contagious virus and keep hospitals from being overrun.
Returning to the classroom this fall won’t be like flipping a light switch, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum has said. It will require new approaches to safely allow students and teachers to gather in learning environments that don’t become breeding grounds for the virus.
The governor and Kirsten Baesler, the state superintendent of public instruction, have laid out a plan that rightly places the responsibility for guiding the K-12 restart with local school boards and administrators, in consultation with local public health units and with state guidance.
Local decision-making is critical in a pandemic that is playing out with widely differing intensity levels around the state. Schools in Cass County, which has had more than 2,500 COVID-19 cases, are in a very different situation than schools in Towner County, with three cases.
Under the state plan, schools will have the flexibility to decide whether to conduct classes in person, online or using some hybrid — a choice that will be driven by the local prevalence and behavior of the virus.
In order to reopen, each school district must get state approval for a distance learning plan as well as a health and safety plan.
Among other requirements, districts must outline their plans for quarantining students and teachers, if necessary. An aggressive, large-scale testing program will be critical to make this work.
Burgum acknowledges that there will be risks in reopening the schools in the midst of the pandemic. But we must remember that there also are risks of failing to resume instruction in a manner as close to normal as possible.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, a staunch proponent of returning students to school, even in the midst of the public health crisis, reminds us of the range of benefits students receive from attending school.
“Schools are fundamental to child and adolescent development and well-being and provide our children and adolescents with academic instruction, social and emotional skills, safety, reliable nutrition, physical/speech and mental health therapy, and opportunities for physical activity, among other benefits,” the academy notes.
North Dakota has 120,000 K-12 students. Returning them safely to school poses a daunting challenge. It will require thoughtful planning and preparation. To instill public confidence and enable sound plans, administrators must ensure that teachers, parents and health experts have a seat at the table.