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Difficulty Following State Guidance Keeps Many Montana Schools Closed

School hallway.
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Many school districts across the state have already decided to finish out the school year with remote and online learning due to concerns over the novel coronavirus. They’re beginning to make plans for how they will reopen their doors next fall.

Montana Public Radio’s Aaron Bolton has been looking into how schools are making decisions amid Montana’s phased reopening. He spoke with MTPR's Corin Cates-Carney about it.

Corin Cates-Carney: Aaron thanks for being here.

Aaron Bolton: Sure thing.

Cates-Carney: Aaron, when Gov. Steve Bullock announced last week that schools had the option to reopen their doors May 7, school boards began scheduling meetings to make that decision. What have you been hearing about those decisions so far?

Bolton: Schools aren’t required to report what they decide, so there isn’t anyone at the state really tracking this, but I’ve spent most of my week checking school websites, social media pages and making some calls. Out of about 120 districts I looked at, roughly 70 have either already decided to close out the year remotely or their superintendents are recommending that. A handful of those schools do plan to offer some in-person services by appointment, like Libby and Troy. There are still many that haven’t made decisions yet, but most districts don’t seem inclined to reopen, something state education officials and education associations say they’re also hearing.

Cates-Carney: For the districts that are deciding to keep their doors closed, what are they saying about that decision?

Bolton: The biggest thing is that it would be just too hard to comply with some of the guidance that Gov. Steve Bullock gave schools, like limiting class sizes, keeping the same groups of kids and staff together each day and screening students and staff for fever and other COVID-19 symptoms. Larger double-A districts in Billings and Missoula say this would be especially difficult and at least in the case of Missoula County Public Schools, the county health department said that its nurses don’t have a ton of capacity to help the district with screening students or to do contact tracing in schools, which can be really complicated.

However, smaller and medium sized districts also say it would be really hard to reopen right now.

Matt Jenson is the Superintendent for the Big Fork School district in Flathead County and the president of the Northwest Montana School Superintendents group. He’s been troubleshooting with his fellow supers how schools in the region could reopen this spring, but he said they didn’t have to get too far before it became nearly impossible.

"First, it’s how do we get students in the building. S0 you have temperature screenings or symptom checks before students come in; how many can you screen at a time? How many people do we have trained to screen people? Do those people conducting the screenings, do they have the proper PPE? The answer to those first few questions are no."

Cates-Carney: What are parents saying about finishing out the school year remotely? Are they happy with the decisions districts are making?

Bolton: For Jenson, he says superintendents across the northwest corner of the state have received support from parents and staff on this. He says parents don’t feel roughly 20 days of school is worth the risk. Many districts across the state are soliciting input from parents to inform their choices as well and as we’ve seen, many are choosing to keep their buildings closed.

Cates-Carney: And are there any schools that are opening up for the remainder of the school year?

Bolton: I was able to track down two districts that are moving that way. One that has already made the decision to provide a mixed model and another one that is likely to do the same.

Circle Public Schools, which serves about 200 students, is out in northeastern Montana and Superintendent Preston Wenz is recommending that the school board approve his plan to bring certain grade levels in on different days. This is how he described that plan at the high school level.

"They’d go through a modified schedule in the mornings and then every afternoon would be open to any high school student to make an appointment with teachers to get a little extra help or pick up, maybe, what they missed during this time, and kind of just support, literally."

Wenz said the elementary and middle schools would follow a similar format. He added that all of this is voluntary and that some parents plan to keep their kids home if the school board approves his plan.

Fromberg Public Schools south of Billings has already decided to bring staff back into the building, along with students who are struggling with online classes.

Cates-Carney: What about in the fall? Do districts think they will be dealing with some of these issues — social distancing, remote learning — next school year?

Bolton: The short answer is yes, although what those district plans will look like in action largely depends on what phase of Gov. Bullock’s three-part plan we’re in at that point. Bullock has said that there’s no timeline for when we will move out of phase one. The big sticking point for school districts if we’re still in that phase is limiting group sizes to 10 people.

This is what Missoula County Public School District Superintendent Rob Watson had to say about that.

"So we would have to, like, do some double shifting, maybe bring half the kids in in the morning and half the kids in the afternoon or something like that. But if that restriction is lifted up to 50, then maybe it provides more flexibility for our planning purposes. So, we’re not going down too far into the details yet, because we just need to see how this sort of plays out and what sort of restrictions are still in place."

Cates-Carney: Gov. Bullock did provide some guidance to schools for reopening, but much of it seemed to be directed at schools potentially reopening this spring. Has there been more guidance for next school year?

Bolton: Not from Bullock’s office, but state education officials and education associations have been applying the governor’s general guidance for schools to all three phases of his plan, largely based on considerations of group sizes.

The Montana Office of Public Instruction and School Administrators of Montana released an 11-page document Wednesday detailing all the considerations districts should take into account depending on where things are at. So if we’re in phase two of the governor’s plan, which says groups up to 50 people are safe, classes will likely move on as they normally would, but extracurricular activates like sports games would still be discouraged. According to that guidance, under phase three, extracurricular activates could resume. But on the flipside, that document says districts should monitor things closely and be ready to take a step back if COVID-19 cases pop up.

Cates-Carney: Thanks for your reporting.

Bolton: Thanks for having me.

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