GREAT FALLS — During a nearly four-hour board meeting Monday night, Great Falls Public Schools trustees approved the "Healthy, Safe and Secure Schools Reopening Plan" for the 2020-2021 School Year by a vote of 5-2.
Jan Cahill, Mark Finnicum, Jeff Gray, Gordon Johnson, and Kim Skornogoski voted to approve the plan. Bill Bronson and Teresa Schreiner voted against adopting the plan, but explained that they weren’t opposing the plan itself.
Instead, they were concerned that now is not the best time to reopen schools, given that 97,000 children reportedly tested positive for coronavirus in the past two weeks as some schools have begun to open across the country, and case counts continue to rise across Montana.
“I approve of the strategic plan as presented for reopening, my opposition overall is just the fact that our numbers continue to rise in the community,” Schreiner explained. “I just feel that we could be near presenting a situation where we could have to close schools and possibly close the economy at some point if we had a case of spread in any of our school districts. So, my concern would just be that we would be in a situation where we would have to close, overwhelm our hospitals, overwhelm the community, and we would be back where we started.”
Both Schreiner and Bronson agreed that there isn’t one, clear cut answer to the question of how best to reopen schools in the coming weeks. They also cited a desire to see community spread slowed before students are sent back to school.
As for the approved and finalized plan, there are several things that are important to know. The full plan can be found on the Great Falls Public Schools website.
GFPS Superintendent Tom Moore said that he was happy to have the plan finalized and put in place, but that doesn’t mean that the next two weeks before school restarts will be easy.
“Making sure that our staff is trained and well-versed in what the new protocols are going to be,” said Moore, when asked what was next for the district after approving the plan. “Our teachers are dispersed throughout the summer, they’re out on vacation still, and so bringing them back maybe a little early and having to engage them differently to prepare them for the changes that are taking place."
"We needed to make sure that the board was in favor of moving in this direction, so we got that accomplished this evening and now we’ll be working with our staff between now and the beginning of the school year to ensure a smooth opening either online or face-to-face.”
Some education officials across the country have adopted the term “COVID slide” to refer to the learning loss that many students are likely facing after being out of classrooms since May.
Moore said that that was one of the main reasons that he and other board members were adamant about getting students back into the classroom for face-to-face learning sooner rather than later.
“(We need) to assess where students are actually at and do some testing and assessment with them and then be able to personalize some of the remediation and some of the help that students are going to need to get caught back up,” Moore explained.
“Then also to acquaint them with some of the technology that we’re going to be implementing if we do have to go back to school closure; Moodle, Google Classroom and some of the other platforms that our teachers have been working on since they had to be forced to do remote learning.”
While the board members might not all have agreed on approving the plan, they all agreed that changes are likely as we move closer to the start of the school year and beyond.
It appears probable that, as we learn even more about coronavirus and what the district can do to keep its students, staff, and their families safe and healthy, new protocols and rules may have to be adopted on the fly.