While most Montana schools decided to finish out the year online, some of the smaller, more rural districts opted to reopen under new guidelines. Cottonwood Elementary in Gallatin County started in-person learning last week.
On the basketball court, five upper elementary students and their teacher, Abby Eichenberger, sit six feet apart in a circle, practicing chords on ukuleles. A nearby stream, swollen with snowmelt, rushes behind a fence while cottonwoods sway in the warm, spring breeze.
"Ok, let’s try to remember 'C' first, where you just have your third finger on the string closest to the ground," Eichenberger says.
As Montana began lifting COVID-19 restrictions last month, school districts across the state had the option of continuing online learning or resuming in-person classes. Eichenberger says their school board asked for parent input to make the decision for the students in the K-5 school.
“We had an overwhelming majority say, ‘Let’s just do field based learning because it’s so much work to clean the school, open the school and only for a couple of weeks, if that.’ So they all just thought it sounded great to learn outside and get the kids back together.”
Eichenberger says the small number of students (only six in the upper grade levels) and the space to spread out means they can more easily follow public health guidelines compared to larger schools.
The lower elementary students join for certain field trips, like bike rides or hikes in the Bozeman area. Eichenberger says one family decided not to send their kids back for the remaining two weeks.
This morning, the students continue a unit they started before COVID-19 about ecosystems. They talk about why certain types of animals and plants live in the desert but not in the Arctic or rainforest. Then Eichenberger transitions the conversation to focus on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
She hands out laminated worksheets showing different types of compound and simple leaf structures, and the students search for matches around the school.
“It’s got pointy edges,” Lockey Strean says, looking down at a leaf.
“This isn’t simple. I think it’s compound,” Mateo Joecks says.
“Oh, I think you’re right.”
During the school’s two-month closure, Eichenberger posted online videos and lesson plans each morning. At midday, they checked in over video chat.
“I’m just so proud of how my students have, even not being in the same room as me, continued to learn and grow and be creative,” Eichenberger says.
She adds that she thinks the school’s Montessori model of education, which emphasizes hands-on and independent learning, helped her students adapt. But she says it was challenging not seeing them in person everyday and harder to know if someone was struggling and needed some extra help.
Educators nationwide expect some amount of instructional regression. They're calling it the "COVID slide." But students at Cottonwood are feeling, with more immediacy, the loss of companionship.
Eight-year-old Freya Campbell and her classmates all say they are glad to be back at school so they can see their friends.
“It’s hard to stay away from people you love and care about. Like I wouldn’t think not hugging someone would be so hard for eight weeks,” Campbell says.
For now, the students are still practicing social distancing. Instead of touching someone’s head during duck, duck, goose, they use pool noodles.
“If you notice someone getting too close to you and not being socially distanced, what do you say?” Abby Eichenberger asks.
The students all shout, “Noodle!”
Freya Campbell says her older sister attends a large middle school in Bozeman, which decided to continue with online school for the rest of the semester.
Rachel Cramer: Is she a little bit jealous that you get to come here while she has to stay home?
Freya Campbell: Oh, no, no, no, no. She is absolutely loving this, and I think she actually likes me being gone for a little bit because, honestly, I like being with her. But it’s true. Sometimes it is nice to get away from people you know.
Freya's dad, Charlton Campbell, says he and his wife are self-employed and work from home. He says there are a lot of benefits to smaller schools, especially during times like this.
"You know I supported the closing. It’s a scary time, so especially with my oldest daughter being in one of the larger schools, I felt comfortable not having her go," Campbell says. "If Cottonwood had stayed open, I probably would have let Freya come because it is such a small school. I mean, there’s less than 10 people in the classroom."
Ten-year-old Alec Roth says he likes having school outside, but he warns me you have to watch out for spiders.
Alec Roth: I found a spider nest, and it hatched, like multiple spider nests.
RC: Oh, so keep your eyes out for spiders?
Rachel Cramer wore a mask and disinfected her equipment between talking to people while reporting.