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North Dakota to close K-12 schools for 5 days starting Monday

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum announces the closure of all schools in the state due to concerns over the spread of coronavirus at a press conference in Bismarck on Sunday, March 15. Joining him behind the podium are state Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler (far right) and a sign language interpreter. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum has ordered that all K-12 schools in North Dakota close Monday, March 16, through at least Friday, March 20, in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Burgum announced the five-day closure of the state's 175 public and private school districts in a Sunday, March 15, press conference after Minnesota opted earlier in the day to temporarily close all its schools. The governors of South Dakota and Wisconsin also announced plans to close schools during the outbreak.

On Friday, Burgum said the state would plan to keep public K-12 schools open unless cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by coronavirus, start spreading through communities. Burgum said then the situation did not warrant statewide school closures because North Dakota leaders were "making decisions based on facts, not fear."

The Republican governor said Sunday the need for planning time and new recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which include limiting gatherings of more than 50 people, played a role in closing the schools. He said the state will use the week to collect "better data" on the virus and the capacity of state's health care system to handle it. Burgum said state officials will reassess at the end of the week whether to bring school back in session.

"The strategy around the school closing is to reduce the rate of infection to allow us to have a week to plan, not just for how we deliver school services, but for us to plan to make sure that our health care system can take care of those that are most vulnerable," Burgum said.

The closures do not apply to day care providers, which look after about 44,000 children in the state.

The North Dakota Department of Health has confirmed only one case of the illness in the state: a Ward County man in his 60s who recently traveled to the East Coast. The man is recovering at home, and health officials do not suspect he transmitted the virus to anyone else in his community.

The state has reported 112 tests for the virus Sunday, with 111 coming back negative. The department no longer lists pending tests on its website because private providers don’t need to get permission to send tests to the state lab. Despite the single positive test, Burgum said it's "very likely" that more North Dakotans have contracted COVID-19 but have not been tested for it.

Even with no students in the building, Burgum called on school administrators across the state to meet Monday and Tuesday and come up with plans for reopening schools and instituting health and safety measures.

Burgum also said most school districts wouldn't have to make up the five days since they run longer normal school days than state law mandates, but an extended closure could require a reconsidered approach.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler said the state would work with schools to administer standardized tests around the altered schedule.

Baesler also said the state had gotten approval from the federal government to continue providing food to the students who receive free or reduced-price meals at school. About 30% of all students in the state receive meals through the program, and will now get them in "non-congregant settings."

'Flattening the curve'

Burgum acknowledged that closing schools may put a burden on some families, with parents or other caregivers having to stay home from work to watch the children.

However, he said the closures are another step in increasing "social distancing" by limiting situations in which the virus can spread easily between people. State and national health officials have repeatedly said taking these kinds of actions could help prevent a sudden outbreak of COVID-19 that overwhelms the health care system. Burgum called this analysis "math of a contagion."

For example, Burgum said Sunday that state officials gained a better understanding over the last two days of how the number of ventilators available to patients in North Dakota could pose issues in COVID-19 treatment.

There are only about 100 available ventilators in the state's entire health care system, Emergency Preparedness Section Chief Tim Wiedrich told Forum News Service. The machines, which mechanically deliver breaths to someone who cannot breathe, are often critical in saving COVID-19 patients and have been in short supply worldwide since the pandemic began spreading.

If the efforts to limit the virus's spread are successful and fewer people contract it at one time, the state's health care system could better provide ventilators and critical medical attention to those in dire need.


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