MISSOULA — The Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS) Board of Trustees voted last week to move forward with plans to transition into Phase 2 of the district's reopening plan, following the COVID Task Force recommendation.
However, the decision to have all K-through-12 students back in the classroom four days a week by Feb. 2, was quicker than the task force had hoped – and that has some teachers concerned. It’s been a roller-coaster month for MCPS teachers.
A Global Harvard Institute Health study showed promising results for kids getting back in the classroom full time. Then, teachers learned that most would not be getting their COVID-19 vaccination as soon as originally planned.
Missoula Education Association leader Kacee Ballou says they suggested a slower timeline.
“The task force as a whole kind of recommended a more, you know, a slower approach so that we could make sure that, you know, everyone was taken care of,” Ballou said. “You know, can we contain and do our own contact tracing as quickly as we have been? How do we make sure that multiple adults moving into those rooms with that increased number of kids can be best handled to keep people safe and in buildings?”
Sentinel High School Advanced Placement World History and Geography teacher Ezra Shearer says there are specific criteria -- distancing specifically, that many classes simply won’t be able to meet.
“The board was told at the last board meeting we were going to meet and strive to meet all of those Global Harvard Institute Health guidelines, or five-of-six,” Shearer said. “And then it became apparent really quickly we wouldn’t be able to meet five or six. And it seems like we’re accepting that without going back and just being fully transparent about it."
In addition to more time, some educators were hoping for to sort out meeting these guidelines, word came down last week that any teachers under 70 and without underlying health conditions had been moved from Phase 1B to phase 1C on the COVID-19 vaccination list.
“It was kind of shocking, to be honest. It’s hard to know we’re being classified as essential workers, and being asked to go back with all of our students, but then we’re not being prioritized,” CM Russell School second grade teacher Shannon Judge said.
Shearer stressed that educators understand the importance of getting kids back in class, and that is the goal.
“We know how much the community supports us and has year after year, and we want to be there as best we can, but we just want to make sure that it is as safe as possible for our students to return, as well as ourselves,” Shearer told MTN News.
That change in classification for the teachers' shots was a state decision, and not made by the district.
MCPS Kindergarten through second grade students -- as well as middle school students -- will be back in the classroom full time on Jan. 26. Meanwhile, third through fifth grade -- and high school -- students will be back on Feb. 2.