For the first time in months, a small group of Helena Public Schools students returned to classrooms Monday.
At Helena High School, just under 150 incoming freshmen arrived on campus. This year, they are getting oriented to a new school – and to a very different school experience.
The school district is in the middle of its “Rolling Start” plan, as it reopens with adjustments for the COVID-19 pandemic. Last week, teachers were on campus to go over new protocols and prepare for the start of the year.
“There is no playbook for this, so we’re doing the best we can right now” said Helena High principal Steve Thennis.
On Monday, high schools brought in half of their new freshman class and middle schools welcomed half of their sixth-graders. The other half will come in on Tuesday.
Leaders brought those students onto campus first to help them with the transition to a new school. At Helena High, the “Link Crew” – a group of juniors and seniors – was there to assist them.
“Freshman year is always super scary, and then on top of that having one-way hallways and not knowing where your classes are,” said Link Crew member Reegan Walsh. “We’re just helping them out, showing them their way around the hallways, showing them what classrooms they need to go to, and just trying to make high school a little more fun with all this.”
Students are returning to campuses that look much different. Students and staff members are required to wear masks. Classes have assigned seating, with students spread out for social distancing. Arrows on the hallway floors say which direction people are supposed to travel. Even lunchtime has changed, with students at HHS eating their meals in their fourth-period classrooms.
Still, educators said the changes haven’t dampened the enthusiasm for a new school year.
“A very different opening, but, man, it was sure good to hear some kids laughing today and hear the chatter in the hallways and things like that,” said Thennis.
“Just being back in the classroom and just seeing kids – even though we can’t really ‘see’ see them – just being able to interact with them not over the computer,” said Kayla Lunnon, a math instruction coach at HHS.
“We just have been missing them since March, and so it’s just great to have kids back,” said HHS math teacher Nicole Lindgren. “We’re hoping that we can continue – that all of our precautions are going to help us so we can stay going to school in class.”
Starting Thursday, the other grades will begin returning to classes. Eventually, the district plans to have a “hybrid model,” where all students attend classes in person two days a week. Those with last names beginning with A through K will be on campus Mondays and Tuesdays, while those with names starting with L through Z will have in-person instruction Thursdays and Fridays. All students will have online classes on Wednesdays.
HPS Superintendent Tyler Ream said, at this point, it’s too early to know what the next steps will be after that. Earlier this month, he called the hybrid model an “optimistic goal,” that could only be reached if the COVID-19 situation in Lewis and Clark County improved. Since then, Ream said they have seen most of the public health indicators improve, making them more confident in moving forward.
“Thanks to our community, to our parents, to all of our employees that made today possible – made this week possible,” Ream said. “I just can’t say thank you enough.”
Ream said some elementary classes held parent, student and teacher conferences on Monday. All grades should be fully into their regular instruction by next Tuesday, Sept. 8, the day after Labor Day.
Unlike the East Helena School District, Helena Public Schools decided not to switch its regular high school schedule to a “block schedule,” where students would have a single class all day long. Ream said the goal of a block schedule is limiting the number of people students have contact with, and that public health leaders told them it wouldn’t be necessary because of the other precautions the district has taken.
There will be one change to the usual high school schedule: Helena and Capital High added an eighth daily period that will give teachers time to work with students who opted to stay in all-online classes until the district fully reopens. More than 1,800 students signed up for the Digital Learning Initiative.