Helena Public Schools releases first draft of comprehensive reopening plan

Posted at 7:06 PM, Aug 03, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-04 16:18:52-04

After months of planning, the Helena School District has unveiled the first draft of its plan for reopening schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In June and July, more than 150 people worked on planning various aspects of the district’s return to classes. Now, leaders have combined that input into a roughly 35-page draft.

“This really is a comprehensive approach for our community to consider – parents, teachers and others – as to what we’ve planned for in relation to the upcoming 2020-21 school year,” said Superintendent Tyler Ream.

You can read the draft plan here.

The plan lays out details for four phases of reopening. Ream said the district may need to move back and forth among them during the school year.

The most restrictive, Phase 0, would be a return to all-remote learning, with physical schools closed. District leaders have said they want to avoid that step if at all possible. Ream noted in the draft plan that only 4% of district families reported that their children loved remote learning, while 39% said they struggled.

Phase 1, called “Alternative to Closure,” would split students into two groups and have each group on campus two days a week and doing online classes three days a week. One group would attend in-person classes on Monday and Tuesday, and the other would come in Thursday and Friday. On Wednesday, the district would perform deep cleaning in school facilities.

In Phase 2, “Modified Operations,” students would be in in-person classes each day, but school activities would be limited, visitors would be restricted and students would be broken into “cohorts” that enter and leave school at staggered times and go to lunch and recesses separately. That phase could also require “block scheduling” in middle and high school – having students spend longer in each class, but only attend a given subject on alternating days.

Phase 3 would be a return to near-normal operations, though some additional precautions would remain in effect. The draft plan says this phase would occur only once there are “minimal to no” local COVID-19 cases.

Families will also be given the option later this month to have their children continue all-online learning, through the Digital Learning Initiative. Students will receive instruction from designated teachers focusing on remote learning. They will retain their spot in their current schools and classes, and be able to rejoin later in the year. All students will be able to participate in DLI during Phases 1 and 2. In Phase 3, those that need to remain in the program will be put on individualized plans.

The four phases are loosely coordinated with the statewide phases of reopening: Phase 0 with a return to stay-at-home orders, Phase 1 with gatherings being limited to 10 people, Phase 2 with the current guidance of maximum gatherings of 50, and Phase 3 with the lifting of the remaining restrictions.

However, Ream said the district’s decision may not line up exactly with the state’s status. He said leaders will be working closely with Lewis and Clark Public Health to determine what the appropriate decision is based on local conditions.

There will be changes that apply at all phases of reopening. Buses will be limited to no more than 24 students, and routes will be reorganized to limit the time students have to ride. All students in second grade and above will be provided with Chromebooks for online learning. Facemasks and social distancing will be required in Phases 1 and 2, and encouraged in Phase 3. All schools will put additional emphasis on social and emotional support for students.

The district is also planning a “rolling start,” with students’ schedules varying over the first eight days of the school year, from Aug. 26 to Sept. 4.

District leaders emphasize that this plan is still a draft.

“In general what we’re looking for is feedback – what’s working, what’s not working,” said Ream. “That type of information is helpful for us because, again, this is a draft, it’s something we want to iteratively improve as we move forward.”

If you have any suggestions about the plan, you’re encouraged to email them to

The Helena school board is set to hold a work session on the draft plan Tuesday, starting at 4 p.m. The public can view the meeting online. You can find out how to watch on the district website.