A COVID-19 outbreak at a construction site in Williston has led to 45 new confirmed cases of the disease and has contributed to delaying the start of school.

The board for Williston Public School District No. 1 voted unanimously Thursday, July 23, to change the start of the school year to Aug. 27. The delay will offer teachers in the district a chance to better prepare for the start of school and give administrators a chance to find space to deal with the fact that two new school buildings won’t be ready for the start of school.

On Thursday morning, three board members heard about a COVID-19 outbreak at the American State Bank and Trust Innovation Academy, which was supposed to open at the beginning of the school year. On July 15, a worker from the project tested positive, and more positive tests came back soon after.

“Throughout Thursday there was a significant escalation of cases,” Matt Lang with JE Dunn said.

The North Dakota Department of Health got involved and recommended shutting the site down. JE Dunn is managing both the Innovation Academy project in the former Hagan Pool building and a conversion of the former Williston High School Career and Technical Education building at the Bakken Elementary/Williston Middle School site.

“In a nutshell, the site’s shut down until further notice,” board Vice President Heather Wheeler said. “And this is a direct result of COVID.”

Because the Innovation Academy is an expansion of an existing project, there are students already set to attend in that building in the fall, board member Cory Swint noted.

“We need some kind of timeline, because we’re working with an entire school that has 300 students registered,” Swint said.

There are a number of questions still unasnwered, but if work can resume soon, workers should be done by the middle of September, Bob Laumann with JE Dunn told the board members.

“I think that’s a reasonable expectation,” Wheeler said. “There are some people in the room right now who are a little bit on edge.”

The construction delay was part of the reason for changing the start of school, but the other part was a decision to make sure teachers were ready for the new safety plans being developed.

Each plan is building specific and they will all be finalized by Aug. 3, Jeffrey Thake, district superintendent, said.

“One thing we want to do, is we want our buildings and our staffs No. 1 to have adequate time to train staff and No. 2 physically create the social distancing measures that need to take place,” Thake said. “And we think that will give the staff the time they’re going to need to do that.”

Teachers will still report on Aug. 14 for professional development and training. Thake explained that the district already built 15 extra days in the schedule in case there were outbreaks that required schools to close.

By using some of those days at the beginning of the year, teachers can be sure they’re ready to follow the safety plans the district is working on.

Eric Rooke, band director at Williston High School and president of the Williston Education Association, which represents District 1 teachers, told board members he was happy with the decision. It sends the message the district is being thoughtful and taking the issue seriously, he said.

“We’re going to give you ample time so you can implement this in your classroom,” he said.

In a news release announcing the date change, the district emphasized student safety.

“Student achievement and safety are the top priorities as we look forward into the school year,” the announcement reads. District Administration feels that the decision to delay the start date will give more time to prepare the best educational strategies and safety procedures for all students and staff. Once all decisions are finalized, we will send detailed information on the Smart Restart Plan to families and staff. Please watch for emails, text messages, social media posts, and updates on willistonschools.org.”

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