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Bismarck teachers union pushes back on return to in-person learning for grades 6-9

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The Bismarck Education Association and several Bismarck Public Schools teachers on Monday asked the school board to delay transitioning grades 6-9 to face-to-face learning full time.

Members of the school board did not discuss delaying the transition, and Superintendent Jason Hornbacher presented the board with the reasoning behind the decision.

BPS announced last week that some secondary students will return to full-time in-person learning starting Oct. 19. They're now in a hybrid model in which they rotate between in-person and distance learning.

Teachers union representative Landen Schmeichel told the board a survey of association members found that 72% of high school teachers either somewhat or strongly disagree with moving secondary students to full-time in-person learning. 

The association asked the board to delay full-time face-to-face learning for secondary students until after Oct. 30 so the administration can see the impact of four weeks of COVID-19 transmission data on elementary students, who returned to in-person learning on Sept. 29.

Schmeichel cited rising case numbers and low hospital capacity as factors that should stop the school board from putting more students physically back in school.

"It's clear that decisions should be moving in the opposite direction than that of the decision offered last week by district leadership," he said.

The association also asked the board to make masks mandatory for students and staff, to consider the mental health of staff when making decisions and to phase in changes to instructional models at quarters of the academic year.

"Our membership feels powerless and unheard by those who make decisions that may be contrary to the recommendations of both epidemiologists and staff," Schmeichel said.

Several teachers also told the board their concerns about face-to-face learning and the safety of students and the community at large.

Legacy High social studies teacher Tom Bushaw said bringing ninth graders together at lunch will increase their risk of being exposed to the virus and exposing others.

He added that the hybrid model is working, and students and staff are getting more comfortable with it every day. He asked the board to suspend the decision to move to full-time face-to-face learning "for everyone's safety."

Legacy English teacher Ryan Franus told the board that the hybrid learning workload "has been insane" but that "it's worth the additional work to keep students, colleagues and the community at large safe."

He said the low transmission rate among students shown on the district's coronavirus dashboard means the hybrid model is working and should still be used to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Franus added that switching the learning structure so early in the school year puts stress on students.

Legacy Spanish teacher Gina Solemsaas said that being face-to-face is not a requisite for learning and expressed concerns with how long full-time face-to-face learning would last.

Hornbacher said that if students came back after Oct. 30, they will have not been in school full-time for an entire semester, including last spring, when the state went to distance learning after the onset of the pandemic in mid-March.

Hornbacher quoted guidance from the state departments of Public Instruction and Health and Gov. Doug Burgum's office that states full-time learning is optimal for students, students are struggling with a lack of support services, and hybrid models have at times created more transmissible moments and are no longer considered useful in reducing community spread.

Low case numbers among students even as cases in Burleigh County continue to rise lead him to believe the district is doing the right thing, Hornbacher said. He added that he is trying to listen to everybody and make informed decisions for the community.

He also said the district's return-to-school plan will be modified in the next two weeks. It has not been updated since it was approved in August. He did not elaborate.

"We can do this, and it's much easier when we do this together," Hornbacher said. "We will work to get students back safely. That's what we're trying to do."

Reach Sam Nelson at 701-250-8264 or sam.nelson@bismarcktribune.com.

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