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School districts scramble to make plans amid statewide closure

School districts scramble to make plans amid statewide closure

From the North Dakota coronavirus news roundup of the week: March 15-21 series

The state’s decision to shut down schools for at least a week amid the coronavirus outbreak sent many in Bismarck-Mandan scrambling to make plans on Monday.

The announcement from Gov. Doug Burgum came at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, forcing some parents to try to find last-minute child care. Meanwhile, school employees wondered about their paychecks, and superintendents attempted to sort through the chaos.

“It’s like our first day of teaching -- a lot of uncertainty, a lot of questions, some anxiety,” said Barb Luetzen, president of the Mandan Education Association, a union representing teachers and classified staff. “There are so many unknowns right now.”

Bismarck students would not have attended school anyway on Monday, as it was supposed to be a staff development day. But staff stayed home too, except for school leaders who, like their counterparts in Mandan, gathered in all-day planning sessions not knowing what the future holds for the spread of the virus and the duration of school closures.

Online learning

Both Bismarck and Mandan school districts are looking into whether they can offer classes remotely if closures persist.

Mandan Public Schools is “well-positioned” in some ways, Superintendent Mike Bitz said in a brief phone call between back-to-back meetings late Monday morning.

“Every one of our students has an iPad,” he said.

School districts, by law, must provide equitable access to education for all students, and some students do not have access to the internet at home. Others have disabilities and receive certain services in-person, at school.

“Delivering that online is going to be challenging,” Bitz said, adding that the district is looking for guidance from the state on whether it could bring students in that situation to school while other students continue their studies at home.

Luetzen, who works as an early childhood special education teacher at Roosevelt Elementary, did not attend the district’s meeting, but she echoed Bitz’s thoughts about serving students with disabilities.

“Their online learning would look very different,” she said. “To be honest, I’m not sure that it would be a possibility. For many of them, it would not.”

If the state extends the closures, Bismarck Public Schools is considering having teachers come back in next week to plan, Superintendent Jason Hornbacher said on a conference call with school board members late Monday afternoon.

Bismarck Education Association President Lori Furaus said teachers are “anxiously waiting for direction” on remote learning.

“Many teachers have already been providing as much support as possible to students by sharing many virtual resources and lesson plan ideas with parents,” she said.

School employee pay

The school districts want to keep paying workers during the closures.

Teachers are paid under the terms of contracts negotiated with school districts, and they are expected to continue being paid. But schools have a number of other staff members, such as paraprofessionals, janitors, cooks and secretaries.

The Bismarck School Board plans to formally decide on the issue Tuesday, and Hornbacher is recommending that the district continue to pay its employees for all the hours they typically work during a normal week.

“It’s unprecedented times,” he said. “I just feel it’s the right thing to do right now.”

Luetzen, with the Mandan teachers union, said it would be “a very heartbreaking situation” if staff were not paid.

The issue was among the items on Bitz’s mind Monday morning.

“We’re hoping that we get some direction from the state that allows us to do that,” he said.

By Monday evening, however, the issue was resolved.

"The MPS School Board took action tonight to ensure all classified staff will be paid for regular work hours during the Governor’s Executive Order," the school district said in a statement.

The head of North Dakota United, a union representing teachers and public employees across the state, said he’s raised the matter with state officials. They have assured him that schools will continue to receive state money to fund their operations, as normal.

“The expectation is that every school district will continue to pay the education support professionals just as they would if school is in session, so there shouldn’t be an interruption in anyone’s paycheck,” President Nick Archuleta said in a live video on the union’s Facebook page Monday afternoon.

Burgum said late Monday that he would ensure state funding to schools is not interrupted so that districts can keep paying workers and plan ahead.

School meals

School leaders are sorting out the logistics of providing meals to students, some of whom take part in free or reduced-price meals programs.

Bismarck Public Schools will start distributing sack lunches from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at various locations Tuesday, including the Bismarck Early Childhood Education Program at the former Richholt Elementary School, Grimsrud Elementary, Moses Elementary, Myhre Elementary, Will-Moore Elementary, Wachter Middle School, Bismarck High, Century High and South Century High and at the Cenex gas station roundabout in Lincoln.

The lunches are for anyone between the ages of 1 and 18, regardless of whether they attend public or private school. Along with the lunches, people also can pick up breakfast for the next morning. The sites will not offer any dining options, so families will have to take the food and go.

“We’ll monitor that over the next couple of days to see if we need to do some delivering,” Hornbacher said.

Mandan is working to set up meal distribution points in some of its neediest neighborhoods, Bitz said.

Some of the schools’ typical meals, however, don’t lend themselves to being served remotely. For example, some foods might require the district to provide plastic utensils, Bitz said.

“It’s a matter of getting product in,” he said.

Guidance to schools, families

The North Dakota Department of Public Instruction was flooded with questions Monday about the school closures. That prompted a “frequently asked questions” feature on its website addressing some concerns raised by schools and the public.

School districts are working through a host of other issues, such as coordinating student medication pickups and cleaning buildings and buses.

Bismarck and Mandan plan to keep families informed through various communication channels, including emails, texts, calls, social media and website updates.

Bismarck Public Schools is posting virus-related updates here: www.bismarckschools.org/covid-19

Mandan Public Schools is posting updates here: www.mandan.k12.nd.us/mps-coronavirus-updates-7d49055f

Day cares

Some parents who were blindsided by the school closure announcement were posting on social media in an attempt to find childcare.

Child care facilities in North Dakota were not a part of the K-12 school closure. Burgum noted Sunday night that many child care facilities have fewer than 50 people in them.

Director Shannon Callaway said First Steps Learning Centers in Bismarck was taking measures to prevent the spread of the virus, but otherwise, it was “business as usual today.”

“We did have a few of our school-agers that we were supposed to have today decide to just stay home. Hit and miss in our other rooms. We haven’t seen a drastic decrease, but we haven’t had a ton of calls come in for drop-ins either,” Callaway said.

Some teachers who aren’t working this week due to the closures, some people who are working from home and some students on spring break were offering to provide temporary child care for those who couldn’t find it.

(Reporter Bilal Suleiman contributed to this story)

Reach Amy R. Sisk at 701-250-8252 or amy.sisk@bismarcktribune.com.

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