WEST FARGO -- A survey of teachers, staff and thousands of parents found more than 83% of the West Fargo Public School District would feel comfortable returning to buildings once restrictions are lifted.
Gov. Doug Burgum ordered North Dakota schools to close March 15 in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
West Fargo Superintendent Beth Slette said the survey was sent to get a feel for how families, as well as staff, felt about returning to schools as the district prepares guidelines to help schools and staff once school buildings are able to reopen.
"Right now we still don't know when that will be," Slette said. "Right now our team is working on a plan. We want to be prepared when we are able to reopen."
The survey period ended April 30, just a day before Burgum announced school districts would continue distance learning for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year.
Two surveys were sent, one for families and one for teachers and staff. Slette said it was important to break the surveys into two groups, as someone who is a teacher and parent may feel differently about returning to the classroom to teach while sending their child who has an underlying health condition such as asthma to school.
She also noted the survey results do not show a teacher's desire to return to work. It only gauges their level of comfort as the district attempts to plan for reopening once the COVID-19 pandemic has lessened its grip on the country.
"We have amazing teachers and families in West Fargo. The teachers want to work and have been working. They miss their students so much," Slette said.
Both groups were asked first, "Once the school closure restrictions have been lifted, will you be comfortable returning to work?"
The groups could reply, "Yes, without a doubt," "Yes, with certain precautions," or "No, absolutely not."
Of the 1,061 staff that answered, 87.3% answered "yes" or "yes with precautions," and 12.7% answered "no."
Of the 3,282 families that answered, 81.2% answered "yes" or "yes with precautions," and 18.8% answered "no."
The survey also asked respondents what types of precautions would make respondents comfortable when schools can again open.
Slette said the top three answers included having an adequate supply of hand sanitizer readily available, having a zero tolerance policy for illness at school, and not allowing any visitors or volunteers on site as the pandemic continues.
"So, we actually just went out and ordered $3,000 worth of hand sanitizer to have available," Slette said. "The safety of students and staff is and always has been our priority."
Other precautions, such as having students eat in their classrooms, suspending games and activities, or shortening the school day were also noted but not highly ranked by respondents.
The survey also found support for the idea that the Centers for Disease Control and governor or president would set forth clear guidelines for returning to school, and businesses would also have to reopen.
Slette said they have found that even talking about the idea of re-opening schools is causing a lot of anxiety for many people.
North Dakota United, the union representing teachers, sent a similar survey to teachers but focused on whether teachers would want to return to classrooms immediately. It found 89.4% of the 1,679 respondents said they would not feel comfortable returning to their classrooms if schools were reopened at this time.
In a letter to Burgum that was tweeted by North Dakota United, the organization said there was no reason not to continue the distance learning guidelines for the remainder of this school year.
Slette said distance learning has been working for the district, which has had nearly 100% participation. Shortly after the school closures, district staff worked quickly to provide families without WiFi connectivity hotspots and other online learning tools. Teachers continue to work with those students who have trouble staying engaged with school activities online, as they would in the classroom.
"The kids really are resilient, they're adapting to this," Slette said. "Our teachers want to come back."
Now that it is clear classroom learning will not resume this spring, Slette said the district hopes to make a decision next week about prom and graduation ceremonies.
In Fargo, AnnMarie Campbell, executive assistant to the superintendent and Board of Education secretary, said the district did not do any similar surveys. Moorhead School District representatives were unable to be reached Friday, May 1.