HELENA — Next week, Helena School District trustees will consider whether to start returning students to fully in-person classes.
On Friday, the district released the agenda for the school board’s Tuesday evening meeting, which includes an action item on school phasing. According to the agenda, Superintendent Tyler Ream will discuss the district’s modified reopening plan and protocols for a possible “phase-up.”
Since the start of the school year, Helena Public Schools has been in Phase 1 of the reopening plan – a “hybrid model” with students on campus two days a week and in online classes the other three. In Phase 2, all students would be on campus at the same time, but school operations would still be modified out of health concerns.
As they consider whether to make a move to Phase 2, they will have to decide what is the best way to balance health and safety with students’ academic and social needs. The district recently surveyed parents and families – as well as staff members – for their opinion on the possibility of phasing up. A majority of parents who responded said they wanted to look at returning to in-person classes, while most employees said they thought the district should stay in Phase 1 for now.
Parents who support phasing up have pointed to the impact not being in the classroom full-time has had on their children, with many saying their students have had struggles – academically and emotionally. They also noted that most other large school districts in Montana – including places like Billings, Great Falls and Bozeman –have already been back to in-person classes or are now moving in that direction.
The Helena Education Association, the union that represents Helena teachers, has not taken an official position on phasing. However, Jane Shawn, the association’s president, said many of their members are concerned that, if all students attend in person, they won’t be able to maintain the same type of physical distancing that they have been using.
“With more kids in our classrooms, then there’s a higher likelihood of more quarantines,” said Shawn. “Then you’ve got kids moving in and out and teachers moving in and out, and less consistency than there is now for kids.”
HPS has reported more than 500 positive COVID-19 cases associated with students and employees, but district leaders say they’ve been able to avoid close contacts in the schools in most cases. That has meant they usually haven’t had to quarantine the other people in the same class.
In addition, Shawn said teachers had expected to begin receiving vaccines by this time, but will have to wait several more weeks after Gov. Greg Gianforte’s administration revised the vaccination plan to prioritize people over 70 or with health conditions.
Shawn said teachers also understand the importance of being face-to-face with their students, and they want to have them back as soon as it’s safe to do so. She said they hope that, if the district decides to start phasing up, they’ll look at what else can be done to make the transition as safe as possible.
“Teachers rise to an occasion – whatever occasion it is, they rise to that occasion,” Shawn said. “And if that’s what the board decides to do, teachers will make it work.”
Missoula County Public Schools are currently in the process of phasing up to have more students on campus. In the Helena area, East Helena Public Schools has already been operating in person, but with modifications like block scheduling.
While the Helena school board is set to discuss phasing at their Tuesday meeting, there’s no guarantee they will make a decision there.