North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum announced Tuesday, March 24, that his state's 175 public and private school districts will remain closed indefinitely in an effort to increase "social distancing" by limiting situations in which the virus can spread easily between people.

The governor said he would be signing an executive order that allows virtual and alternative learning to count toward instructional hours for schools across the state. State law currently has some restrictions regarding virtual learning, but Burgum said his order would allow districts to come up with "distance learning" plans by Friday, March 27, for consideration by the Department of Public Instruction. If approved, districts could begin holding remote classes the following week.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler announced Monday her department was seeking a waiver for all federally mandated tests for the rest of the semester. She also said the education department is canceling the North Dakota state assessments and the ACT make-up test for high school juniors, who will receive a voucher to take the test at a later date.

All 11 North Dakota University System institutions will finish the semester through online courses. Burgum said Sunday that students returning from spring break trips to areas with high concentration of COVID-19 cases should self-quarantine if symptomatic and report their travel activity to the health department.

Meanwhile, the number of people who applied for unemployment benefits from the state has skyrocketed in the last week. Since Wednesday, Job Service North Dakota received about 8,100 claims for unemployment, compared to 418 all of the previous week.

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The governor said most of the claims came from workers in the state's oil and gas industry, which has been rocked by exceedingly lower crude oil prices. Burgum said he expected more claims from the retail and hospitality industries to come in over the next few days. He also said his office was working to "eliminate red tape," so Job Service North Dakota could process and pay out claims faster.

The North Dakota Department of Health confirmed two new positive tests for coronavirus in Cass County on Tuesday, bringing the total number of known cases to 36 in the state.

Minnesota

Minnesota officials on Tuesday said they'll extend closures of bars, schools and businesses shuttered to prevent the spread of the coronavirus past the end of this week in an effort to better prepare the state for a peak in hospitalizations.

Gov. Tim Walz on Tuesday said he planned to keep schools, along with restaurants, salons, gyms, theaters and other public gathering spaces, closed beyond the March 27 date he initially proposed in an effort to further depress the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.

The governor didn't have immediate details about how long Minnesotans would be asked to continue under current restrictions and he said he was also considering an option to require Minnesotans to shelter at home.

“What we have done to this point is working," Walz said, noting that computer modeling would be made public in the coming days to show how the illness is expected to spread in Minnesota. "We will be extending (the order to close schools and businesses). and I think that’s a discussion that’s ongoing."

The comments came after the Minnesota Department of Health reported 27 additional confirmed cases of COVID-19, raising the state's total cases to 262. In total, 5,812 tests have been processed in the state.

Walz also suggested he would continue other efforts to limit exposure to the disease in Minnesota, despite President Donald Trump saying he would like to reopen the country to spur the economy before Easter, which falls on April 12.

“It’s going to be well beyond Easter, and I don’t think it does us any good to pretend that it’s not,” Walz said.

South Dakota

As the coronavirus spreads in South Dakota, city leaders are weighing how much they should close down local businesses, moves that all but guarantee a patchwork of restricted areas across the state.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem announced the state had found two more cases of the coronavirus, bringing the state total to 30, she said Tuesday, March 24. She also recommended the state’s public K-12 schools remain closed through May 1.

"Our projections are that our number of infections will continue to go up," she said.

The new cases provided more evidence the virus was spreading undetected throughout the state, known as community spread. State and local health officials say there is now community spread in four counties: Beadle, Lyman, Hughes and McCook.

Paul TenHaken, mayor of Sioux Falls, the state’s largest city, has generally been a vocal advocate for taking a hard line and hinting he would far prefer a uniform, statewide strategy to slow the spread of virus, not what he called a “patchwork approach” through which the coronavirus could slip.

“The virus does not respect city limits,” TenHaken said Monday morning, although he pulled back from a previous nod toward the city Board of Health ordering nonessential businesses closed.

Noem’s guidelines for South Dakota businesses, issued Monday, fell far short of the tight restrictions and mandated business closures issued by many other state governors, a move she described as setting a baseline for leaders across the state who were free to make their own decisions.

Around the region

  • Eight inmates who escaped the minimum security South Dakota’s Women’s Prison in Pierre on Monday were in the same unit as another inmate who tested positive for COVID-19, Gov. Kristi Noem confirmed during a news conference Tuesday. The South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation is investigating the incident. Originally, nine inmates had escaped, but one has been brought back into custody since.

  • U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar spoke to Robin Roberts on ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Tuesday, March 24, with an update about her husband, who remains hospitalized with COVID-19. “Today, he’s still on oxygen,” said Minnesota’s senior senator, who recently withdrew from the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. “The reason he was hospitalized is he had pneumonia, he was coughing up blood and his oxygen levels were dangerously low. So he’s been there for a few days now.”

  • In Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers directed Department of Health Services Secretary-designee Andrea Palm to issue a Safer at Home order that prohibits all nonessential travel, with some exceptions for personal needs and essential businesses. The order goes into effect for 48 hours, beginning at 8 a.m. Wednesday.

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