The Governor’s Office and the Office of Public Instruction put out two separate plans earlier this month providing guidance to school districts as they try to hash out what K-12 education might look like in the fall. Districts say both plans are by and large the same, but lack some specifics.
There was some tension between the OPI and Gov. Steve Bullock’s office before July 4. Both put out guidance on reopening schools for district administrators and school boards to consider.
Districts don’t see the plans, which they say are very similar, as competing. They see them as tools to use as they chart their own course. But districts like Missoula County Public Schools say they would have liked more specific guidance on certain issues.
"The health screenings is a great example," says MCPS Superintendent Rob Watson. "There’s really no clear requirement to do a health screening in either the governor’s plan, nor the OPI plan. They recommend that you monitor students and staff for symptoms. But there’s no specificity, like when you should do it, how often you should do it."
Watson and his team have worked with the health department, but have also leaned on guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics to make those decisions.
Big Fork Public Schools Superintendent Matt Jenson has similar concerns on the specificity of guidance coming from the state. He says he would have preferred more concrete directives rather than broad advice.
"Anything from facemasks to social distancing to screening and temp check protocols, how many students can be on a bus at the same time."
Gov. Bullock’s office and OPI say districts should work with local health departments on specific questions; which districts are doing.
Districts across the state aren’t just sweating the specifics on masks and social distancing. Money is also a big concern.
Helena Public Schools Superintendent Tyler Ream says, "There’s a serious void there between what we’re gonna need and what we received from a federal standpoint."
Ream says his district received about $1.3 million in coronavirus federal relief funding.
"I’d expect our costs to be somewhere in the neighborhood of between $4 and $5 million in increased costs for next year. That’s personnel, that’s transportation, that’s supplies, materials, technology etc."
Ream says that money will need to be pulled from the district’s limited reserves.
Transportation costs are a vexing issue as districts work out how to reduce the number of kids on buses at any given time. Many are considering staggered start times, meaning more bus routes. Some are considering only bringing portions of their student population back on certain days. But that mixed in-person and remote model of education is also more staff intensive, which comes with its own cost.
School Administrators of Montana Executive Director Kirk Miller says districts are also facing increased liability insurance costs as they could be held liable in the case of a large outbreak.
He says a recent Association of School Business Officials estimate shows that, across the board, it will cost more to educate students this coming year.
"$41 million came to Montana and that will serve about 160,000 to 170,000 students."
Miller says that federal relief funding would roughly need to double to serve that many students if projected costs fall in line with the School Business Officials estimate.
Additional federal relief funding is reportedly a part of the conversation as Congress works out another possible coronavirus stimulus bill. But in the meantime, Montana’s schools will look to their reserves to cover additional costs that go above and beyond what they have already received.