Montana Public Radio

Gov. Closes K-12 Schools Due To Coronavirus

Mar 15, 2020

Montana Governor Steve Bullock has ordered all public K-12 schools in the state to close for two weeks following additional in-state cases of the novel coronavirus. About half a dozen patients have tested presumptively positive for the illness.

In a press release Sunday afternoon, Bullock said the step was taken to slow the spread of the virus and that the task force he assembled earlier this month would continue meeting to determine next steps.

“Social distancing is one of the most important primary protective measures to flatten the curve of this virus,” Bullock wrote. “I cannot underscore the seriousness of following these measures to help our neighbors, friends, and families.”

[Related: Montana Coronavirus And COVID-19 News]

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its guidance for school closures last week, saying that decisions should be made in conjunction with state and local health officials. The CDC is recommending that schools close for two to five days after a confirmed case impacts students or staff. Montana is following the lead of other states that have closed schools before that happens to slow spread.

The state is trying to mitigate any impacts to schools and families.

The Montana Office of Public Instruction has been encouraging the governor to waive per pupil instruction hour requirements for schools in order to maintain funding. On Sunday, Bullock said funding for districts would be maintained during the two-week closure.

The state also received a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture last week that will allow schools to set up grab and go stations to provide students in need with breakfast and lunch.

Bullock told schools to work to address all other issues related to school closures, such as internet access for remote learning. He encouraged employers to be generous with paid and sick leave for their employees.

A few schools made the decision to close their doors ahead of Bullock’s order.

Box Elder Superintendent Jeremy MacDonald said he held an emergency meeting with his board over the weekend. MacDonald says with students returning from the state basketball tournament, the district felt it was best to move to remote learning.

“So as far as technology, we do have access to do distance learning. Informally, we think 90 percent of our students either have internet in their homes or access to internet by their home,” MacDonald said. “Most of our kids will have internet access and we’re working on the details of how the distance learning will look for the time being.”

Ahead of the governor’s announcement, Rocky Boy, Elder Grove and Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal school districts also announced two-week to indefinite school closures. Other districts put out notices that school would remain open.

Some people aren’t happy with the idea of school closures. MTPR spoke with Kalispell resident and mother of two Jess Cleveland just before Gov. Bullock ordered school closures. Cleveland, who owns her own bridal alteration business, says she can’t afford daycare 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,” she said. “There are a lot of financially challenged people in the Flathead Valley that are going to suffer with school closures.”

Public health officials have been stressing that school closures should not be taken lightly in order to prevent a ripple effect. Speaking at a press conference several hours before the governor’s order Sunday, Missoula City-County Public Health Department Incident Commander Cindy Farr said closures could impact more than students.

“When schools close, their parents may be removed from the workforce, which could impact the health care system and other essential services,” she said. “Their kids could then be placed in the care of grandparents who are at high-risk for illness or in daycare, congregating kids in an even smaller space.”

Following his announcement on school closures Sunday, some parents said they heard from the governor’s office before they heard from their school districts.

Bullock is also calling for people to avoid gatherings of 50 people or more. He’s scheduled to host a press call Monday morning to detail his orders.

Updated 03/15/20, 6:45 p.m. to add additional details.