WEST FARGO — In a special virtual meeting Friday, Oct. 16, the West Fargo School Board decided the district will continue its hybrid learning model and continue working on a plan to return elementary students to the classroom full time despite North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum elevating Cass County's COVID-19 risk level.

On Monday, the school board approved a change to the plan that would have allowed the district to send elementary students back to the classroom full time despite the county's yellow status. Then, on Wednesday, Burgum said Cass County’s risk level would increase from yellow, or moderate, to orange, which is considered high-risk and one step below the highest level of critical.

The school district's current "Return to Learn Plan" says the district would enter into full-time distance learning if the county is placed in the orange category. Without Friday's change to the plan, the district would have to follow its current guidelines and all students would have to go into distance learning. The board unanimously approved the change to the plan.

"I did not at that time ask we consider any changes to orange," Superintendent Beth Slette said. "The plan we have at that (state) level is having schools move into distance learning if the county is at orange. Today what we are asking for is not an actual change in the plan, but rather some stability for us to provide to our families while we continue on the hybrid plan."

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The school board will revisit any plan changes or plans for how the district will open classrooms to elementary schools at its regular meeting on Oct. 26.

"The best course of action is to keep our students in the hybrid and bring back recommendations for the plan," Slette said. "The county turning to orange has caused a lot of anxiety for parents and staff."

Board President Patti Stedman said families are frustrated because the district continues to push back its plans to bring students back to the classroom.

Board Member Jim Jonas said if the district doesn't return elementary students to the classroom until mid-November, West Fargo would be one of the last districts in the state to do so.

Stedman said if elementary students can't return to the classroom until Nov. 30, the district needs to consider returning middle and high schoolers sooner than 28 days after the younger students return to school, as the district had planned earlier.

However, Slette said, the district is working every day on the plan and some buildings may be able to open before others.

The timeline would depend on staff and space availability.

"We currently are short-staffed in several buildings," Slette said.

She said the North Dakota Department of Health contacted her before Burgum's announcement and told her the change would not necessarily need to apply to school districts. DOH staff felt schools should continue using their own models and continue working to get students back to school.

On Thursday, North Dakota Superintendent Kirsten Baesler said school districts should adjust their Return To Learn plans so they are not tied to the category of the county.

"We're asking for this so we can buy time so we can put things together and keep our stakeholders engaged," Slette said.

She planned to meet later on Friday with district leaders to discuss purchasing N-95 masks for staff who want them as well as other protections the district plans to order. They also plan to discuss child care needs of families and district staff.

Assistant Superintendent Rachael Agre said the school district is being flooded with emails from parents and staff who are afraid of sending their students to school full time.

"I just have to advocate for them, too," Agre said. "We are managing people's children."

Board Member Kara Gravley-Stack said the district needs to give everyone time and grace as they process what they are trying to do in schools while COVID-19 cases rapidly increase in the county.

She pointed to concerns of consistency in learning if students have to stay home due to quarantine or if teachers are taken out of the classroom to quarantine.

In the meantime, any changes to the plan would not occur without health official input. The Return to Learn advisory committee would continue meeting, buildings would work on individual plans.

When the Return to Learn Committee met Thursday, the majority of members agreed the district should continue with planning for students to return to school.