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Helena Public Schools considering "metrics-based" guidelines for phased reopening

Posted at 6:27 PM, Sep 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-24 09:01:15-04

Helena Public Schools leaders say they’re looking at adopting “metrics-based” models to help them make decisions about school operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Superintendent Tyler Ream said, before they make any decision on “phasing up” or “phasing down” in their COVID reopening plan, they want to make sure they have objective information to base those decisions on.

“We want the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ to drive the ‘when,’ as opposed to the ‘when’ driving the ‘what’ and the ‘how,’” he said.

Ream discussed introducing metrics-based protocols with the Helena school board during a meeting Tuesday. He said leaders looked at about 15 plans from state and national agencies to determine what data they should consider when choosing what phase schools should be in.

In a metrics-based plan, the district’s primary indicator would be the number of positive COVID-19 cases reported in Lewis and Clark County by week and by day – adjusted to the rate per 100,000 population so it can be compared against other agencies’ baselines.

The rate would fall in one of four ranges, each linked to one of HPS’s phases of reopening. For example, in the preliminary plan Ream discussed with trustees Tuesday, a rate of 30 to 70 positive cases in the county per week, per 100,000 people, would correspond with the district’s Phase I – the hybrid online and in-person classes students are currently in.

If the rate fell in a lower range for three consecutive weeks, leaders would consider moving to a less restrictive phase. If it rose to a higher range for three weeks, they could return to tighter restrictions. The district would also immediately return to a more restrictive phase if case numbers rose significantly week to week.

In addition, the district would consider secondary indicators like the number of active cases in the county, to give them more context when making a phasing decision.

COVID numbers have been better in Lewis and Clark County in recent weeks. However, Ream said they will still have to take the situation outside the county into consideration.

“While things look really good in Lewis and Clark County, we’re not a bubble,” he said. “So what’s happening around us as a county certainly has the opportunity to impact us here locally.”

Overall, Montana has had several of its highest daily positive case counts in the last few weeks.

“We’re being really cognizant of what health professionals are saying about what’s occurring in Montana right now,” said Ream. “We want to be able to watch that so that we’re not phasing up into a challenging time – which would then cause us to phase down immediately, and that could be a real disaster.”

Ream said public health officials he has talked to have been supportive of the metrics-based proposal. He said the district plans to finalize a plan in the coming weeks.

Ream said families shouldn’t expect the district to start looking at shifting phases in the next two weeks. Leaders are currently working on what it would take to switch to a new phase, if the numbers justify it.

“We really want to be cognizant of all of the logistics associated with that, from staffing needs to transportation needs to food service needs and anything else that we need to be cognizant of, so that we can plan for that to be as smooth as possible,” Ream said.

The Helena School District has not yet reported any confirmed COVID-19 cases among students or staff this school year. According to state data, the East Helena School District has had two students test positive.