Local schools look to put pandemic behind them

John B. Crane
Devils Lake Journal

DEVILS LAKE - Defining "normalcy" several years back might have been easy. Now, however, would be anything but. 

Of course, saying this to the Devils Lake Public School District or Lake Region State College would not be earth-shattering news to them in the slightest. After COVID-19 made its presence known, both institutions were not only forced to adjust to the newfound pandemic but adapt to it over their most recent academic year. 

After COVID-19 made its presence known, both institutions were not only forced to adjust to the newfound pandemic but adapt to it over their most recent academic year.

For Matt Bakke, the situation was even more complex. After all, he was going into his first year as superintendent at Devils Lake Public School. After he was hired through the early portion of the 2020 year, the former Grand Forks and Manvel inhabitant quickly had to roll up his sleeves and get busy with his new district upon his official July 1 start date. 

"When I officially came on July 1, let's just say we had to hit the ground running because there were a lot of decisions and things that had to be made as we moved into a school year," Bakke said. "A school year which we all knew was going to be a different school year." 

An intricate health and safety plan drafted by a 42-member committee during the 2020 summer session was only the prologue of what would be a novel the school had to examine. Next came the school year itself, where week in and week out meetings about possible changes to the plan were discussed. 

"They provided recommendations to the school board on how to move forward," Bakke said. "Sometimes, those recommendations were small, sometimes those recommendations were bigger. I think the focus for us as a health and safety team as well as an assessment team was we always wanted to put, first and foremost, the health and safety of our students and our staff at the forefront."

Such was the case for the school's next-door neighbor, too.

For Lake Region State College, the name of the game was figuring out the best way to deliver education in a face-to-face format. To accommodate, the classroom structure needed to change. Social distancing was given an emphasis. Mask policies were in order. Close contact situations were avoided. 

Erin Wood, Director of College Relations at Lake Region State, noticed the challenges right away. From the countless administrative councils and university committees regarding the pandemic, the previous year was one of the more challenging ones in Wood's 20+ years of being on the job. 

"It was definitely a year where there were so many different things going on," Wood said. "From a difficulty standpoint, just because there were so many different things to juggle in the air, plus continuing to do your regular day-to-day activities, I would say it was probably the most challenging in that aspect… probably for the length of time that it made an impact." 

While the past brought its challenges, it was just that.

The past.

Now, the plan of action is for the present and future. 

As the upcoming school year inches closer and closer, Bakke is eager to undertake more of the roles he is accustomed to dealing with. With Devils Lake Public School District transitioning back to normal operations, the opportunity is there for Bakke to do what he originally was hired to do. 

"As far as the educational side of things, it is really getting back to more of the normalcy of being a first-year superintendent or superintendent in general, which I am looking forward to rather than all of the COVID-19 talk we have had previously," Bakke said. 

While Lake Region State College has yet to make a firm decision on whether there will be normal operations or hybrid learning for the upcoming school year, both Wood and Bakke share the same mindset on what it takes to not only learn from last year but to prepare for the upcoming year, too. A mindset that, in due time, might help define normalcy once more. 

Being flexible. 

"The students really wanted to be in class, and we wanted to make sure we could deliver that to them," Wood said. "If that meant we had to be flexible and change something up so we could continue, that is what we did." 

"We had to change things," Bakke said. "We had to literally flip education on its side and say, all right, we have never done something like this before, but let's do it. Let's try it. Let's see what we can do. Be flexible and adjust according to what was best for students… I think the community has been flexible with the school system. The parents and students have been flexible with us. So, it really took a mindset of all of us working together to make sure we were flexible and adjusting to a school year we never faced before."