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

Schools Take Different Approaches As COVID-19 Numbers Grow

Empty school classroom

Well over a month into the school year, some public school districts are making decisions about whether they should move toward more in-person education, while those that are dealing with outbreaks are temporarily shutting their doors. Montana Public Radio’s Aaron Bolton is here to talk about how districts are making these decisions.

Update 10/12/20: After this story was published, Whitefish Public Schools Superintendent Dave Means announced the district is delaying its plans to move toward more in-person instruction due to 16 new COVID-19 cases in all three of the district’s school buildings. Whitefish High School remains in a two-day hybrid model while Whitefish Middle School has shifted to an all remote model for the time being.

Corin Cates-Carney: As we’ve seen COVID-19 cases continue to surge across the state, some school districts have closed their doors while others are considering or are voting in favor of more in-person instruction. Why are schools moving in different directions?

Aaron Bolton: If you look at districts that are closing down like Anaconda and Stevensville public schools in the southwest corner of the state, they are closing their doors because they can’t staff their buildings after students or staff tested positive. We don’t know whether the cases in either district are tied to transmission in the classroom.

Stevensville Superintendent Bob Moore says Ravalli County public health officials told the district which had been fully in-person about confirmed positives Wednesday morning. 

"As we ran into close contacts with our teaching staff that we needed to send home, we very quickly ran out of staffing to be able to keep adults in front of our students in our classrooms."

The entire district, which is on one campus, is going all remote for now as about 70 students and staff are going to be in isolation for the next two weeks. Moore says the school will reopen its doors soon as it has enough staff.

But he adds that it’s been hard for the district to hire additional qualified staff for support positions and it’s been even harder this year to find substitute teachers because many are older, retired teachers who don’t want to risk that kind of exposure in the classroom. It’s not just smaller districts that are facing that issue. Double A districts like Bozeman say they have the same problem.

Cates-Carney: Other districts are considering more in-person classes in the coming month and some are pushing for more in-person classes now. This comes as we have broken records in terms of daily new cases statewide. The number of students and staff in Montana’s public schools that have tested positive for COVID-19 has grown to 678, a 250 percent increase from just a little over two weeks ago when the state began publishing that data.

What information is leading those districts to make decisions about reopening?

Bolton: It’s important to know how these decisions are made. District administrators are the ones making recommendations to their school boards, who in turn vote on those recommendations. Lance Melton with the Montana School Boards Association says district administrators are certainly consulting with medical and public health experts before making recommendations.

"The variety of things they're looking at include infection rates in the school itself. That’s a big game changer right there. And then the number of active cases in the countiesor cities in which they're located, and the feasibility of physical distancing itself."

Cates-Carney: Are districts you’ve been following considering that information?

Bolton: Yea, though I would say districts are putting emphasis on different pieces of that information Melton talked about. Browning Public Schools was going to consider moving from a remote to a hybrid model early next month, but district officials say they don’t want to attempt any in-person instruction because of the more than 440 cases in Glacier County.

[See update above: The Whiefish School District is delaying its plans to move toward more in-person instruction] Whitefish Public Schools for example just voted Thursday to move seventh through twelfth grade from a hybrid model where half of the district’s students are in the building for two days at a time to all students in class four days per week. As a reminder, Flathead County has the second highest number of active cases in the state right now and local hospital capacity is becoming strained.

That’s something Superintendent Dave Means acknowledged during Thursday’s school board meeting.

"Again, we’re very aware that cases are increasing within the community, but we make this recommendation based on what we’re seeing witin the school setting. And at this time we’re not seeing transmission occurring in the school setting."

Cates-Carney: So in this situation cases are rising in the community but aren’t being tied to spread at school. Does more in-person instruction then have the support of parents in the area?

Bolton: Those that spoke during a recent virtual meeting by and large didn’t support the move. Many parents said they are just getting used to the hybrid model and didn’t want the district to end up like other schools that have shut down completely after outbreaks. Several teachers also spoke, saying that the administration wasn’t taking their concerns into account.

Whitefish High School science teacher Todd Spangler said he tested positive for COVID-19 three weeks ago, and he claims that most of his exposure came from the school. And he said he’s worried about the spread in the greater community making its way into the classroom.

"I have a hard time believing that the schools are isolated from the community. So if we’re seeing increased exposures and numbers in the community, it’s either only a matter of time or there’s major asymptomatic transmission going on at the schools."

Cates-Carney: So school administrators say there’s little evidence of transmission in schools. But teachers are concerned about the increased community transmission outside the classroom could lead to exposure and outbreaks in schools. Have county health officials chimed in on this?

Bolton: Flathead County Health Officer Tamalee Robinson said in an emailed statement that while students and school staff have tested positive in a number of schools across the county, most of the transmission is happening outside of the school at gatherings like birthday parties and sleepovers. So local health officials say prevention methods in schools are working. And it’s not just Flathead County. Missoula County health officials also say spread inside public schools and even the University of Montana is limited.

Cates-Carney: As we’ve already noted, the number of students and staff in schools testing positive across the state have increased significantly over the last couple of weeks. But I’m wondering what those numbers can tell us broadly about whether schools are leading to outbreaks?

Bolton: That’s a question I posed to Josh Michaud with the Kaiser Family Foundation. He’s a trained epidemiologist and Kaiser’s associate director of global health policy. Like health officials, he says the raw numbers don’t tell the whole story and he says it’s really important to look at whether spread is happening in the classroom or at other events or gatherings in a community 

"That’s where it’s hard to say whether or not closing schools is the indicated measure to be taking here. Because without that additional information, you don’t know if closing schools would actually help or not in this instance."

Bolton: Like Whitefish, other districts are saying they may move toward more in-person instruction so long as they aren’t seeing transmission in the classroom and they can staff their buildings.

Cates-Carney: Aaron, thanks for your reporting.

Bolton: No problem, happy to do it.

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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