Reflections on Distance Learning in North Dakota’s Public K-12 Schools Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic


North Dakota’s 175 K-12 public school districts educating more than 115,000 students were closed by Executive Order 2020-04 on March 15 due to the spread of COVID-19. Educators were tasked with creating distance learning plans pursuant to further guidance issued March 22 in Executive Order 2020-10 for approval by the Department of Public Instruction and the Governor’s Office by March 27 with distance instruction beginning April 1. The goal of these plans was “to educate and graduate the students of North Dakota through the end of the academic year while maintaining the health and safety of students, staff, and community.”

Has distance learning in North Dakota’s public K-12 schools amidst the COVID-19 pandemic been a success? The question of success is not a simple “yes” or “no” answer; and is perhaps closer to the “it depends” response that one of my doctoral program professors said would be a more common response given when thinking like doctoral learners. As someone who has taught online college courses for nearly 14 years and focused my work in the Institutional Analysis track of the NDSU Education Doctoral Program on Alternative Deliveries of Education, I have a keen interest along with specific education and experience in distance learning.

For this discussion, the question of success will be split into two phases: development and implementation. Administrators and teachers did the best that they could to provide educational content to students in fulfillment of the stated goal, faced with the alternative of months of lost instructional time. Arguably, the mere development of distance learning curriculum in such a short period of time amidst a global pandemic and without the opportunity for training could be deemed a resounding success.

North Dakota’s schools, administrators, teachers, students, and parents, respectively, were at different places when tasked with transitioning students to distance learning. Some schools may have had a distance learning framework in place, most did not. Some teachers may have had experience developing and delivering content in blended or digital environments, others did not. Some students, particularly at the high school level, may have had experience with distance learning, but most did not. The same variety can likely be found with factors of parental involvement, social and emotional learning, technology access, and other aspects of educational success. We should be prepared to say that distance learning in North Dakota may have been effective for certain students, parents, administrators, teachers, and schools while not being as effective for others.

How should we measure the success of distance learning implementation during COVID-19? Ideally, it would be useful to base a determination on multiple, diverse measures. Unfortunately, the inability to administer the North Dakota State Assessment (NDSA) this spring is a complication in determining success. Likewise, many schools did not have their typical interim assessment data during the distance learning period for which they could make comparisons. Thus, we may have to wait a while before having some standardized evaluation of student learning amidst the pandemic. State assessments during the next academic year could provide a glimpse into the impact of COVID-19 upon student learning; however, we still do not know what the administration of state assessments will look like next year.

Researching the experiences of our administrators, teachers, students, and parents might provide insights into educational experiences during the pandemic that could be used alongside other metrics. The Blackboard system utilized by NDUS campuses provides one means for facilitating and measuring faculty and student engagement in learning that may not be feasible within public K-12 schools at this time. In the spirit of lifelong learning, hopefully the distance learning plans submitted earlier this year will undergo additional review and development by teachers and administrators within school districts as a continuous improvement opportunity.

Many agree that distance learning is not ideal for K-12 education. Effective leadership and instruction in distance learning programs often requires more training, time, and self-discipline on the part of administrators, teachers, staff, and students. Many students face additional challenges learning via distance education. For example, discussion has taken place upon the complexities of providing services for students with disabilities to students at a distance. It is also important to remember that our public K-12 schools are safe places for students who may have less than optimal home situations. Face-to-face school instruction will remain part of our educational experiences, though it is likely that distance learning will be part of the reinvention necessary for educators in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps especially in dealing with circumstances such as winter storms.

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly been a defining moment in our history. We should take the opportunity to learn from these experiences, considering what went well and what we can improve upon using multiple metrics and gleaning diverse perspectives. Collectively, we may have opportunities to reinvent K-12 education in North Dakota.


   Dr. Gregory Carlson is an Institutional Researcher – Special Projects with the North Dakota University System. Working closely with the Department of Public Instruction and Information Technology Department, primary responsibilities include project management, data framing, and ensuring compliance with requirements for statewide K-12 public school Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) accountability reporting through the Insights interactive public dashboards. He assists in addressing accountability data questions from education stakeholders and facilitating use of educational data to facilitate continuous improvement of student learning within North Dakota’s public K-12 schools.