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The latest news about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 in Montana.

Montana Schools Scrambling To Transition To Online Learning

School hallway showing students walking through in a blur.

Following Montana Gov. Steve Bullock's order Sunday to close public schools for two weeks due to detections of the novel coronavirus, districts around the state scrambled on Monday to set plans in place for remote learning and feeding students. Yellowstone Public Radio News Director Nicky Ouellet talks with MTPR's Aaron Bolton about how schools are responding to these detections.

Nicky Ouellet: Aaron, it sounds like school districts didn't really get a heads up about the governor's order on Sunday for public schools to close. He held a press conference earlier today and he touched on the closures. What did he say?

Aaron Bolton: Bullock said he called for the closures to allow schools to get their long-term plans in place, and what most districts are focusing on right now is exactly that: continuing education either online, and also focusing on how they're going to deliver learning materials if kids don't have internet connections, and also how they'll get breakfast and lunch out to students on free and reduced-meal programs. And, from what I can tell, it seems like private schools are also following suit.

Ouellet: Gotcha. And we're right around spring break, aren't we?

Bolton: Yeah. A lot of schools will be on spring break, either this week or next, and that gives them more time to plan. However, the Helena School District won't be on break until three weeks from now, so Superintendent Tyler Ream says his staff are moving pretty quickly to get their plans solidified by Thursday. And when it comes to online learning, his district already uses an online platform known as Clever, so that transition to remote learning won't be seamless, but a little easier than districts without something in place. Let's hear what he had to say:

"We're also working through a Chromebook checkout, so if somebody doesn't have a device that they can utilize at home, we want to be able to provide that device. And so we'll have that checkout available at every school on Wednesday."

Ouellet: You know, recent reports from the FCC and Microsoft say anywhere between 290,000 and 720,000 Montanans don't have internet access at broadband speeds at home. What plans are in place for kids who don't have, or can't get, internet at home? What are districts trying to do about that?

Bolton: You know, that's a big question for a lot of districts. Many are working with internet providers to get internet connections into homes without one. I know Spectrum put out word last week the company will install free service in homes with students for 60 days. Districts without devices to check out like Helena are also talking to companies like Verizon to get internet-enabled devices. So it really depends on how the district is set up.

Some are scrambling to find online platforms to use as well. I'm hearing that Zoom, Google Hangouts and Skype are all likely candidates for teachers to use, and there are also options to deliver physical materials, you know, good old fashioned pencil and paper, to students who can't get internet or a device. And that's also a popular option for younger kids, kindergarten through third grade, who might not be as efficient learning online.

Ouellet: Oh, wow, really running the gamut. What about food programs? Are schools ready to get breakfast and lunch out to students who really depend on those meals?

Bolton: Many schools already seem to be on top of this, and that's in part due to a waiver the state received last week from the U.S. Department of Agriculture allowing schools to utilize their summer programs, which typically deliver breakfast and lunch to various locations within a county or district. Bozeman Superintendent Bob Connors says his district is already meeting with the local food bank and others to get the district's summer program running by next Monday, when spring break is over:

"That's my expectation today at, you know, one o'clock. But we'll have to see if that can actually happen. Hopefully it can, because I know we do have a lot of kids that rely on school meals."

Ouellet: You know, even the governor who wrote the order to close schools down earlier on Monday, he acknowledged this is a huge upheaval for families. What have you been hearing from parents?

Bolton: Well, there are really two sides to this coin, and it's really hard to say based on social media, how public opinion among parents is split. But there are parents who really support school closures as a precautionary measure for both kids and the community that they interact with.

And there are parents who depend on their kids being in school. I spoke with Kalispell parent Jess Cleveland just before Gov. Bullock ordered school closure Sunday, and Cleveland, who owns her own bridal alteration business, says she can't afford day care and will likely fall behind on work.

"It’s kind of one of those things where you look at school closures in a different light when you're financially challenged. And there's a lot of financially challenged people in the Flathead Valley that are, you know, going to suffer with school closures."

Ouellet: That is a really challenging situation. Speaking of day cares, are they swamped today with parents who are scrambling to find care for their kids?

Bolton: Actually, no. I heard from a handful of day care facilities across the state, ranging in size with keeping at, you know, 90 kids enrolled daily to 20, and almost all said it was a slow day, and many parents are finding other options, though they have been receiving calls about capacity in the coming days, so that certainly could change. I know one facility in Great Falls that has closed and is following Gov. Bullock’s order for public schools to close as well, but I'm hearing a lot of concern from day care facilities about what they say is a lack of guidance from the state.

Carmen Keibler manages Giggles Playcare here in Columbia Falls where I’m based, and says that's a huge source of frustration, and they're taking their own precautions while deciding on a day-to-day basis whether to stay open. Let's hear what she had to say:

"We do have a questionnaire that you need to fill out. And one of our big questions is, does anyone in your household have a fever, cough, sore throat, nausea, vomiting or difficulty breathing? And if you answer yes to that, unfortunately, you can't come in."

"We're checking temps at the door, we visually see your child is runny nose, goopy eyes: They're not coming in, unfortunately."

Bolton: Smaller facilities like Giggles say if they are ordered to shut down, they won't be able to pay their employees, and that same facility in Great Falls that already closed down says it will pay its employees for two weeks and prorate the cost of care for families through March. But there isn't much ability in this industry to do any more than that.

Ouellet: So really, a varied approach on to how to handle this influx of kiddos and at the same time, maintain community health. What kind of guidance is coming down from the governor's office, and is there a potential that these, you know, day care facilities will be shut down?

Bolton: Bullock was asked about whether or not he would be changing any regulations for day cares, and he didn't really say whether or not that was coming. He said there are discussions on that, and he also didn't mention whether an order for day care facilities to close down could be forthcoming.

Ouellet: Gotcha. So little bit up in the air as government officials scramble to finalize response plans and issue up new guidance. Well, Aaron, thank you so much for sharing your reporting with us.

Bolton: Thank you. It was a pleasure to be here.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
Aaron Bolton is Montana Public Radio's Flathead Valley reporter.
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