COVID-19 meant hard work, hard decisions for Helena Public Schools

Tyler Ream
Luke Muszkiewicz
Posted at 9:17 AM, Mar 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-12 19:53:12-05

HELENA — Helena Public Schools Superintendent Tyler Ream says the reality of the coronavirus really began to sink in for him one year ago Friday, as national organizations like the NBA canceled events and discussions began about what steps would be taken in Montana.

“I remember being in schools on Friday the 13th – no pun intended – and you could just feel the concern, this feeling that it’s here or it’s coming here,” he said. “We knew that we were going to have to make some decisions – or some decisions were going to need to be made – that weekend.”

COVID-19 meant hard work, hard decisions for Helena Public Schools

Though no one knew it at the time, that Friday would be the last day of full, “normal” in-person classes in the Helena School District. The tough decisions did indeed start that weekend, and they have continued ever since, as district leaders stood up a completely new online education system, planned out their return to classrooms and sought to maintain the balance between students’ academic and social needs and their health and safety.

Leaders say they had a slight head start. Knowing they might eventually have to take action on coronavirus, they began having meetings several weeks earlier to start planning.

“I remember each and every day, it was all consuming: looking at the case counts, trying to gather whatever understanding we could about the virus, studying the CDC guidance and what they were saying,” said school board chair Luke Muszkiewicz.

On that Sunday, March 15, when then-Gov. Steve Bullock ordered all public school facilities in Montana to close their doors for two weeks, the focus shifted from planning to action. Ream said they worked until close to 1 a.m. that night to get ready for the next week.

“We had to think through operationally what was that going to look like – professional development, instruction, all of these pieces – and what’s the fastest, but not too fast, in terms of a timeline that we could do it, knowing that, no matter what that timeline was going to be, it was going to cause a massive amount of stress,” he said.

Based on their planning up to that time, they believed the district could make the full shift from in-person instruction to remote learning in three days. The change involved more than lesson plans, as they had to work out the logistics of providing school meals outside the facilities and handing out Chromebooks for students who couldn’t otherwise access online instruction.

Ream says that first week was chaotic, but gave him a real sense of pride.

“There’s some layer of haze there, in terms of remembering really clearly; I just remember this sense of disorientation,” he said ‘I remember thinking, ‘My gosh, people think about these kinds of shifts and how many years it takes, and we essentially did that across about a 48, 72-hour period.’ Was it perfect? No, but the pride that I had came from the immense work that people did on behalf of children in the midst of this great uncertainty about what was happening.”

The Helena School District made the decision not to return to in-person classes before the end of the 2020 school year. That choice had a particular impact on last year’s senior class, who weren’t able to close out their high school careers in the ways they had expected.

After weeks of uncertainty, the district was able to organize in-person graduation ceremonies – though with restrictions.

“It was incredibly important to students and their families to be able to honor a strange, challenging and, in many ways, unfulfilling year, given everything that especially those seniors didn’t get to do,” said Muszkiewicz. “Yes, it was different, everyone had masks on, there was obviously a limit on the number of attendees, but I think largely it worked well.”

The debate over how to handle the end of the year was particularly poignant for Muszkiewicz, whose daughter was a graduating senior.

“You just very quickly – and I’ve talked to other trustees about this – realize that you have to totally disassociate what you might think is best for your own kids and instead think of the district as a whole,” he said. “So I had to do that, and in many ways I was kind of disengaged from that process for my own daughter, which I’m sad about, because I was focused on doing what’s best for the district.”

During the summer, district leaders say they were able to create a more robust plan than the one they had to rush into place in March.

“I would say from a planning standpoint, I don’t feel like we’ve ever really stopped since then,” Ream said. “It’s been this kind of iteration behind COVID – COVID does this, we do this.”

The district implemented a phased reopening plan and started this school year in Phase 1 – a hybrid of in-person and online instruction. For the first few weeks of the school year, case counts remained so low that Muszkiewicz says trustees were seriously beginning to consider the possibility of phasing up. However, before they could make that change, the number of cases in Lewis and Clark County began a spike that lasted much of the fall, and schools remained in Phase 1 until just last month.

Muszkiewicz said the debate over when and how to reopen schools has drawn by far the most public discussion of any issue in his three years on the board. He said the issue also stands out because of the immediate impact it has on families’ lives.

“Trustees always have in mind that they’re responsible for the 8,000 students and 1,000 staff in our district, but it’s rare that a school board makes a decision that affects all of those people, including their families, in such a significant way,” he said.

Ream has also talked about the impact the district’s decisions have on students and families – particularly during the February meeting where the trustees voted to begin phasing up to have most students on campus four days a week. There, he pointed to data showing this year has negatively affected many students’ social and emotional health, as well as their grades.

“It’s been the hardest school year physically, but emotionally as well, in my career,” he said. “To me it still is a very painful topic to kind of go back and think through, because I don’t want to cause pain for kids, I don’t want to cause pain for families, yet I want everyone to stay safe and be healthy.”

A year into the pandemic, there are again fewer new COVID-19 cases in Lewis and Clark County. Most Helena schools have returned to Phase 2, with the high schools set to be back to mostly in-person classes by next week.

As district leaders look back over the last year, they see places where the pandemic’s disruption may have opened up new options for the future. Muszkiewicz said it’s likely Helena Public Schools will maintain an online instruction option, now that they have experience on how to do it. He also noted that the switch to remote learning forced them to become a “one-to-one” district – meaning every student has their own laptop or tablet.

“When it wasn’t necessary, it was hard to do, but now we’ve done it, and I don’t think we’re going to go back,” he said.

Ream said he thinks about how the seniors and other students who went through this year will carry these experiences forward.

“I remember being very proud of the resilience of that class of kids, and wondering, no matter how difficult their senior year was, what imprint does this have on their lives, to be the leaders that they’re capable of being in the future,” he said. “I think that’s still my wish for all of our kids that are going through this pandemic, is, how can you turn something that is by no means positive into a positive? There is something beyond this, and I think it will create a generation of kids that sees things differently, that functions differently, in a very positive way for us as a country.”