Port: Burgum is giving locals control over re-opening schools, and that's exactly right

PHOTO: Governor Doug Burgum 07-14-20 coronavirus press conference
North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, a Republican, speaks during a July 14, 2020, press conference regarding the COVID-19 outbreak and the question of re-opening schools during a pandemic. (Screenshot via YouTube)
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MINOT, N.D. — Gov. Doug Burgum understands one of the most often overlooked aspects of good leadership.

What you don't do is as important as what you do.

We can see his understanding of this principle in his handling of school re-opening issues.

Yesterday Burgum, alongside Superintendent Kirsten Baesler, announced what they're calling the K-12 Smart Restart guidelines .

"Developed in collaboration with education associations, tribal leaders, stakeholders, and interim State Health Officer Dr. Andrew Stahl, the K-12 Smart Restart guidelines emphasize local control and decision-making by school boards and administrators in consultation with local public health units and based on guidance from the North Dakota Department of Health, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other resources," the news release from Burgum's office said .


That ponderous sentence is an example of one of Burgum's weaknesses - anyone who has watched his news conferences knows the man loves his jargon and has yet to find a 10-minute statement he couldn't take 30 minutes to express -- but, alas, not a single one of us is perfect.

If it took Burgum all day to tell us he's leaving the decision about re-opening schools to local officials, that would still be precisely the sort of leadership North Dakota needs right now.

You can read the guidelines for yourself , but the only part of the policy that matters is this sentence from Burgum's news release: "Local communities can decide if teaching and learning should be conducted face-to-face, via distance learning or a hybrid of the two."

Schools must educate children this fall, but whether they do it in classrooms, online, or some combination of the two is up to local officials.

Many political leaders tend to micromanage public policy, particularly in times of emergency, and typically it's a move calculated to let the politician take maximum credit for the emergency response.

Burgum's decision on school shows he's the sort of leader focused on outcomes, not credit.


I suspect many local school officials are not happy with Burgum's hands-off approach. Re-opening schools, much like wearing masks, has become a partisan political issue. I don't envy the school boards and administrators tasked with navigating those choppy waters.

Parents are never easy to deal with, but parents hopped up on months of paranoia and conspiracy-mongering from social media and cable news?


Still, the need for local control over this issue is obvious. The coronavirus hasn't impacted our state uniformly. According to the Department of Health's data , more than half of North Dakota's 53 counties have seen fewer than 10 cases since the beginning of the outbreak.

The lucky folks in Adams County have yet to see even a single positive test so far.

North Dakota should not implement a one-size-fits-all approach to re-opening schools, because there is no reason why schools in places like Adams County or Bottineau County (7 cases) or Bowman County (1 case) should implement the same policies as schools in Cass County (2,522 cases).

On this issue, Brugum is putting the onus of leadership on local school boards and local health officials, and that's how it should be.

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Rob Port, founder of, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at .

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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