As I write this, discussions are ongoing in every school district in the state to determine how to safely reopen our great public schools. Last week, I was invited to meet with school leaders and the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction (NDDPI) to share concerns that our members, including several local presidents, have expressed. Unsurprisingly, many of those concerns are shared by school leaders across the state.

At my Zoom meeting with North Dakota United local presidents, it was clear that everyone on the call desires a return to normalcy and wishes that it were possible to open the coming school year as we have every other school year. Still, we know that likely will not happen everywhere, though in some areas, it may. NDU’s local presidents on the call shared these concerns:

  1. How do we ensure social distancing in schools?
  2. Even though we know that if 60% of Americans wore masks that were 60% effective, the U.S. would see a diminishing epidemic instead of a growing epidemic, would children be able to wear them all day?
  3. Passing time between classes, even if staggered, could be problematic.
  4. Communities should be able to make their own decision about how to restart their schools. In McIntosh county, for example, there has been just one case of COVID-19 reported (later determined to be a false positive result), and schools in Wishek and Ashley should not be held to the same standards as, say, Fargo where many more cases have been reported. In fact, as of today, 26 counties are reporting zero cases of COVID-19.
  5. Busing could be an issue.
  6. There was some concern that proposed safety measures will not provide safety, rather just the appearance of safety.
  7. What happens if many parents do not send their kids to school?  Will a teacher have to do both in-person and distance teaching? What about being compensated for double duty?
  8. How do we ensure that teachers and educational support professionals with health issues that put them at increased risk are protected?
  9. Are teachers and education support professionals (ESPs) serving on district reopening task forces?

As I mentioned, administrators and school board members share many of these concerns. This is true not only in ND, it is true across the nation, as evidenced in this Politico article.

The NDDPI has offered local school districts guidance based on the recommendations of the Center for Disease Control. So, too, has the ND Department of Health (NDDoH). Superintendents in Fargo and West Fargo explained that they have been getting conflicting guidance on reopening from Sanford, Essentia Health Care, the NDDoH and DPI.

Superintendents want a common set of data points that school officials, in the same region, should be tracking to be identified by the state. These data points may include the number of new cases, the numbers of those needing to be hospitalized, the rate of confirmed cases, etc. The idea is that if every district is tracking the same data points, they will make the same decision about reopening. This would avoid blow-back from education stakeholders. As an example, let’s invent a scenario where patrons complain that the East Overshoe school district is being too cautious by having a hybrid opening while a similar-sized school district, such as West Overshoe, opens as usual.

The key takeaway from this meeting is that DPI would put together a set of parameters that allow for a great deal of flexibility for individual school districts.

It is critically important for teachers to share their concerns with school leadership and to be part of any district or school teams that are developing the protocols for safely reopening our schools. I encourage you to get involved in the planning. The National Labor Management Partnership, of which the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) are members, offers guidance in the document, “Collaborating in a Crisis: Working Together to Safely Reopen Our School Buildings.”

Be well and stay safe!

Nick Archuleta
NDU President