How North Dakota moved its schools to online learning

Leaders, educators and families are working together to strengthen the home-school connection during coronavirus school closures
By: | April 23, 2020
(Photo by Dimitar Donovski on Unsplash)(Photo by Dimitar Donovski on Unsplash)
Kirsten Baesler is the state superintendent of schools for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction.

Kirsten Baesler is the state superintendent of schools for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction.

On Friday, March 13, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and I held a press conference to address whether schools should stay open in the face of COVID-19. We shared a four-level decision tree for each of our 173 school districts to use when making their choice.

Over the following weekend, several cases were confirmed in Minnesota, a neighboring state. The majority of our larger school districts are located directly on the Minnesota border, so having confirmed cases so close to home impacted how we made certain decisions. We also considered that there are 750,000 citizens in North Dakota and only 100 tests had been administered. Were we really getting a true picture of where North Dakota stood when it came to the virus?


Read: Updated: 208 free K-12 resources during coronavirus pandemic


On Sunday, March 15, the governor and I met with our COVID-19 Unified Command Team, led by the National Guard and the Department of Health. The governor gave the order to close all schools from Monday, March 16 to Friday, March 20 for additional planning. Each superintendent was given the authority to decide which staff members were essential, and those people reported to work on March 16 and 17 to develop plans to continue learning and provide school meals.

On Thursday, March 19, based on the number of tests administered, the number of community spread confirmations, and the number of confirmations in general, the governor extended the executive order to close all public and nonpublic school buildings to students until further notice. The governor tasked all school districts to develop age-appropriate plans for full continuation of learning and submit them to the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) by March 27.

Collaborating on a plan

Our school districts pulled together teachers, support staff, community members and school board members to write plans for a multitude of distance-delivery scenarios. I reviewed those plans to make sure that they were aligned to the state’s guidance on what constituted full continuation of learning. Our staff at DPI put in Herculean hours, working back and forth with the governor’s office, until we got all of our plans to a level that the governor approved.

What I’m most proud of is the rebirth of the crucial partnership between school districts and families.

On the morning of April 1, every student in the state of North Dakota was engaged in distance learning. School districts remained funded in full, and in return, the governor asked that all districts keep school employees on the payroll. While some staff such as custodians and crossing guards were repurposed, all employees remained fully employed.

Providing for ‘essential personnel’

Some of our educators wondered why, if school buildings were closed and the president had declared social distancing, they were being asked to report. With uncertainty comes a lot of emotions: first despair, then maybe a little bit of anger or exasperation, and even some excitement. We experienced all of those. In subsequent executive orders, the governor declared that everyone involved in delivering K-12 education is considered an educator, and educators are essential staff.

To help our educators continue doing their jobs, we first recognized that teaching remotely requires different skills than teaching in the classroom. Since the middle of March, our Center for Distance Education has provided, free of charge for any teacher, a course on the pedagogy of developing online courses. Many of our teachers have taken advantage of that. In addition, we have an arm of our educational services called EduTech that has consistently been providing not only tech support, but also instruction to our teachers.


Read: How will schools reopen safely in fall 2020?


Delivering instruction

With our professional development in place, another big question we had to answer was how to provide broadband access for students. I’m very proud of the work my office has done with the Dakota Carrier Network and our Broadband Association of North Dakota (BAND). According to our most recent report, fewer than 0.02% of our students do not have access to broadband connectivity. We have approximately 72,000 homes in rural North Dakota that are serviced by rural telecoms that are BAND members, and of those, only 169 students are currently without a broadband solution.

We’re working diligently with our telecommunications partners to deliver hot spots, which are back-ordered to a significant extent. As we’re finding broadband solutions for these 169 students, school districts are providing alternative instruction to those students. Teachers are calling students and having materials delivered to their homes. So those 169 students are all being served with every creative solution we can offer.


Read: Digital equity: Solving the technology issue through collaboration


Supporting early learning

During this difficult time, we’re helping as many of North Dakota’s children as we can, even if they’re not yet enrolled in our schools. During a press conference in the second week of the shutdown, I informed North Dakota families that they can now sign up their 4-year-olds for Waterford UPSTART at no cost. The program is performed at home and includes:

  • literacy and SEL lessons that Waterford recommends students use 15 minutes per day, five days per week
  • a laptop and internet connection at no cost if needed
  • coaches who offer parents tips on how to become their child’s first teacher
  • fun educational activities that parents can complete with their children offline

We had 480 slots split between our urban and rural districts. All of the urban district spots are full, but we’re still reaching out to our rural districts. Having our school buildings closed has accentuated the need for this sort of education at home, and I see our families becoming more comfortable not only with online learning, but also with being partners in their child’s education.


Read: Infographic: The COVID-19 crisis and school district budgets


Keeping the school community informed

To support our districts during this unprecedented time, I’ve been holding daily Q&As to answer all of their questions. I have several cabinets, including one made up of students from fourth-graders to college freshmen. They used to meet with me quarterly, but now we meet online every week so they can provide input on what students need.

I also have cabinets for elementary principals, secondary principals and superintendents, and we meet weekly so I can get specific guidance on what they need. Then, there’s my family cabinet, a group of more than 20 family members. Grandpas, grandmas, moms, dads, aunties and uncles are all on there. They’re putting together a resource toolkit for our families. This pandemic has upended our families’ lives, so we’re helping them deal with how to suddenly telecommute or how to maintain full-time jobs and manage the learning of children at home.


Read: 5 steps to building stronger schools after COVID-19


Vetting online resources

Once we had these human connections up and running, my entire team at the department transitioned into vetting the enormous amount of online learning resources that are becoming available. We’ve put all of those resources on our either our open educational resources website or on our COVID-19 update website so K-12 teachers and families can easily search for and access them, and we expect that to explode.

When our agency was consumed with day-to-day operations, we didn’t have a systematic way of vetting resources and making sure that they were being kept up to date. So I asked my team to create a process for that, which they delivered by April 7. Now, when everything goes back to our “new normal” this fall, we’ll have a statewide process for vetting and sharing OERs.

Strengthening school-family bonds

While I’m excited about all of these changes, what I’m most proud of is the rebirth of the crucial partnership between school districts and families. Families are understanding so much more about the important role that every person in the K-12 education system plays in their children’s lives, and school districts are better understanding the role that families must play in their children’s success.

As a K-12 educational system that was created in the early 20th century, we’ve been pushed to new limits. North Dakota has risen to the occasion of providing a new way of delivering education. Our teachers are excited; our kids are excited; our leaders are excited. I don’t think we’re ever going back to the way we were.


Kirsten Baesler is the state superintendent of schools for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction. Before taking office in January 2013, Superintendent Baesler had a 24-year career in the Bismarck public school system as a vice principal, library media specialist, classroom teacher and instructional assistant.


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