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

What Will School Reopening Look Like In Montana? It Depends

School hallway showing students walking through in a blur.

For the first time in months, students will be heading back to class in-person. What schools look like will depend on each school district, their community and what public health officials are comfortable with. Montana Public Radio’s Aaron Bolton joins Corin Cates-Carney to explain.

Corin Cates-Carney: Many districts will start off the school year in the coming weeks after most ended the school this spring remotely. Are most districts returning to class in person?

Aaron Bolton: When I posed that question to school superintendents, education associations and state education officials, I heard them say “it depends.” But by and large, yes, kids will be learning in-person in some form or fashion. School superintendents, their staff and school boards have had all summer to hash out how bussing is going to work, staggered start times, whether kids will be wearing masks, although that is now mandated by Gov. Steve Bullock as of this week.

Cates-Carney: And Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen said she was caught off guard by that move from the governor ?

Bolton: Right, there’s been an ongoing dispute between Arntzen and Bullock over some of the actions the governor has taken related to schools during the pandemic. Some of those decisions Arntzen agrees with Bullock on, but she says the Governor’s office is making decisions about emergency funding and this mask mandate, for example, without her input. Arntzen says she learned about the state’s mask mandate in an email from one of the governor’s office staff nine minutes before it was announced in a news conference. but the governor's office says it has included Antzen in decision making and the superintendent refused to give guidance on mask usage in schools.

Cates-Carney: Interesting.

Bolton: I spoke with Superintendent Arntzen earlier in the week before this back and forth over masks. Here’s what she had to say about the schools you are more likely to see returning to class five days per week.

"In our very rural schools and, of course, our C and our B schools, the traditional model seems to be school doors opening this fall with in-person instruction."

Bolton: These C and B school districts have under 100 to a couple hundred students, so they tend to have fewer logistics to think about once students are in school. Their class sizes are a lot smaller than the 50-or-fewer-people size limit on groups under Gov. Bullock’s phase two guidelines.

But I don’t want to paint smaller schools with too broad of a brush. There are districts like Ashland on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, which still remains under a shelter-in-place order, that are starting with remote learning and will shift to a hybrid model for students when that is lifted. And Ashland has only roughly 80 students. Dodson Public Schools in Phillips County announced this week they are delaying the start of school because of a large spike in COVID-19 cases there, so case numbers and input from local public health officials are certainly playing a role in how districts both big and small are navigating this. There are roughly 400 districts statewide, so hard to say what every one is doing. But all the district reopening plans I’ve combed through or district administrators I’ve spoken with says they will offer remote instruction for families uncomfortable with sending their students back to class.

Cates-Carney: What about larger districts who have thousands of students? What are they doing?

Bolton: Most of the larger AA districts in the state have created phased plans, are starting with a hybrid model, splitting their student population into two groups and providing them with both in-person and online instruction. Though districts say they will be monitoring local case counts to decide if and when they will increase the days students are physically in class.

Cates-Carney: What is that going to look like?

Here, again, there are exceptions. Kalispell Public Schools is bringing all of its students back five days per week with some precautions. They mandated masks for all students before Bullock’s directive came down this week and desks in classrooms will be moved as far apart as possible. But unlike other AA districts who are changing class schedules or are implementing staggered start and dismissal times to limit contact between kids, students in Kalispell will be coming and going as they would any other year.

Cates-Carney: Why is that?

Superintendent Micha Hill says the district worked with the county health department to develop its plan and says transmission of COVID-19 is unlikely in the hallways. He says the main reason Kalispell is opening school on a regular schedule is because nearly 90 percent of parents surveyed want their kids in school every day.

"You can put a lot of time and effort into creating these designer plans and hybrid models and A days, B days, but I think that really puts a burden on our families, especially our working families, to find childcare and/or have to stay home with their kids when they aren’t in school."

Cates-Carney: I wanted to ask about that. Earlier this week Gov. Steve Bullock allocated $50 million of federal relief money the state received to help daycare facilities expand their capacity, implement safety measures and recruit staff. Are districts playing a role in solving this issue or are they saying what the governor is doing is enough?

Bolton: Certainly not every district is able to help families with younger children find daycare, but Missoula County Public School District Superintendent Rob Watson said it’s an important piece of making these hybrid models, where kids are in class only a couple days per week, work. According to surveys the Missoula district sent out, 30-40 percent of parents said childcare would be an issue for them and so the district is working with facilities to help out parents while limiting contacts.

"So for example, for one elementary school, we’d like to pair them with a specific community partner to provide childcare, both on the remote days for our essential staff, but also in the after school care for all parents. So, that's something we're continuting to work on. There's a lot of details there, but we’re hoping that it's gonna happen by the first day of school."

Cates-Carney: I wanted to also ask about funding and staffing. The last time we talked about school reopening plans, districts were saying that the $41 million they received in federal relief funding wasn’t enough to cover the costs they were facing, whether that be additional bus routes or more staff to make both remote and in-person learning possible. Gov. Bullock allocated districts another $75 million to cover those costs. Are districts saying that’s enough?

Bolton: Yes, they say they are well funded, but districts are saying that the extra relief money they got from the state specifically needs to be spent by the end of the year versus the relief dollars schools received directly having a two-year shelf life. That’s part of the rules that came with federal CARES act funding. So the extra money state gave districts can cover costs such as cleaning supplies and other equipment as well as the additional staff from the classroom to the lunchroom districts are trying to hire, but those staffing costs won’t go away at the end of the year when that extra money is either spent or expires.

And even with enough funding, districts in normal years struggle with staff recruitment and retention. Here’s Executive Director of School Administrators of Montana Kirk Miller.

"It might be that you have enough money to staff it up in your school district to have the remote learning going on and teachers, potentially, that are at home delivering remote learning to a classroom full of kids, and a paraprofessional that would be in the classroom with the kids because of whatever the situation is in that individual school, but you may not be able to hire the para or the teacher."

Cates-Carney: Are districts concerned about this?

Bolton: They say they will be able to make things work when school starts in a few weeks, and some are using their federal relief funding to incentivise qualified candidates, especially substitute teachers, to apply and stay on the job.

Cates-Carney: We’ll be keeping an eye on how schools transition back into the classroom this fall. Aaron, thank you for your reporting.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
Aaron graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism in 2015 after interning at Minnesota Public Radio. He landed his first reporting gig in Wrangell, Alaska where he enjoyed the remote Alaskan lifestyle and eventually moved back to the road system as the KBBI News Director in Homer, Alaska. He joined the MTPR team in 2019. Aaron now reports on all things in northwest Montana and statewide health care.
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