Montana schools plan for re-opening – but nothing is 'normal'

COVID-19 may mean 'blend' of in-class, remote learning
Big Sky High School
Posted at 7:07 AM, Jul 08, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-08 09:18:48-04

HELENA — Montana public schools are preparing to re-open this fall, after spring closures because of COVID-19 – but officials say it won’t be anything close to business as usual.

“You may be coming back full-bore, but I don’t believe it’s going to look like that,” said Kirk Miller of School Administrators of Montana. “It’s probably going to be a blend of remote delivery of education services … and, if (kids) come back to the classroom, in select and smaller groups.”

Last week, both the governor’s office and the state superintendent of schools released guidelines for Montana schools to re-open. Yet a week earlier, education groups representing school boards and administrators, teachers’ unions and others put out their own guidelines.

Education officials told MTN News they’ll likely review all documents as Montana’s nearly 500 school districts decide how and when to open this fall, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most school districts are committed to reopening school buildings and classrooms this fall, officials said. But the shape and scope of that opening will depend on many factors, such as the size of the district, its buildings, curriculum and type of school.

“I think the smaller the school, in the more isolated and less densely populated areas – they’re more likely to have everyone in attendance, short of health concerns that individual students have, or parents have,” said Dennis Parman of the Montana Rural Education Association.

Miller, Parman and Lance Melton of the Montana School Boards Association said for bigger schools, a blend of in-classroom and remote learning will likely be the model.

School districts themselves will make the call, in consultation with local health officials, staff, parents and students, they said.

Miller said many school districts are surveying staff and students’ families to determine which of them might want to avoid the crowds of a classroom and who has the ability to learn remotely.

And, in order to open schools this fall, decisions on the details have to be decided within the next month, officials said

“The next 30 days, people are going to be very, very busy,” Parman said.

Officials outlined several possibilities and setups that schools are considering for this fall:

  • In larger urban schools, particularly middle school or high school, smaller groups of students may be in a single classroom for most of the day, with teachers coming to them to teach different subjects that all students must take.
    • This one-classroom setup would avoid having students switch classrooms for different subjects and move in the hallways among hundreds of other students.

“If you’ve got a group of 30 students together, don’t slice that deck and resort it six or seven times a day, or you will not be able to track, who saw who, and who was in proximity to whom,” Melton said. “And you won’t have an effective way of isolating the impact of a positive Covid infection.”

  • Classes that are taken by only a few students, such as a foreign language or advance placement, may be available on-line only.
  • In elementary schools, half of the students might come to class for a couple of days, to maintain social distancing and smaller class sizes, and the other half will come for two days later in the week. When kids are not in school, they’d be doing some sort of remote work.
  • In smaller schools with declining enrollment, with facilities built for larger enrollment, students may be able to attend class as they would regularly, but with more social distancing.
  • No matter how class rotations are scheduled, schools will be undergoing a lot more cleaning and disinfecting of their buildings, as well as other preventative measures, such as daily health screenings, temperatures taken or, perhaps, requiring people to wear masks.

“The presence of any type of mitigation is going to be throughout every school day and every school,” said Parman. “You’re just not going to be able to walk into school and not notice it.”

  • Lunches or other school meals may be altered in some form, such as meals being brought to children in classrooms, rather than having kids congregate together in a large lunchroom.

Another wild card for schools is the cost of these new, widespread duties and changes. The federal government allocated about $40 million to Montana schools this year for impacts from COVID-19, but school officials are guessing that won’t be enough.

“School districts are not only going to need the resources they have right now – they’re also going to need additional resources in order to do right by their schools,” Melton said. “Now is the time to say, let’s redouble our investments and protect and preserve the rights of kids while we’re going through this deadly transitional period.”

And when asked what the best-case scenario can be for schools, as they prepare to reopen, Parman said that’s largely up to Montanans as a whole.

“The best-case scenario is, for the next 60 days, the people of Montana get serious about how to stem the growth (in COVID-19 infections) that we’re seeing right now,” he said. ”Get those numbers lower and get our communities healthy, and get to a place where the numbers are manageable.”

Governor Steve Bullock and Lt. Governor Mike Cooney released the Governor’s Plan for Reopening Safe and Healthy Schools for Montana on July 2 to provide guidance for public schools to prepare to offer in-person instruction in the fall. Click here to read the complete plan (PDF).