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Helena school board votes to start phasing up to in-person classes four days a week

Helena School Board
Posted at 10:19 PM, Feb 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-13 15:26:46-05

HELENA — Students in the Helena School District will begin returning to in-person classes four days a week, starting in about a week and a half.

The district board of trustees voted 6-2 Tuesday to shift from Phase 1 of the school reopening plan to a newly revised Phase 2.

“It’s incumbent upon us to make sure that what’s best for students is being carried out, and to me, that is to try to phase up to Phase 2,” said trustee Sarah Sullivan.

Helena Public Schools has been in Phase 1 – the “hybrid model” with students in person two days a week and online the other three – since the start of the school year. On Tuesday, Superintendent Tyler Ream recommended the district move into the modified Phase 2, saying it was the best option for meeting students’ needs.

“In looking at where we are from the student standpoint, I am concerned that we have students that are struggling – we have students that are struggling socially and emotionally, we have students that are struggling academically,” he said.

Ream pointed to data showing middle schoolers and high schoolers had received significantly poorer grades during the last semester than in previous years. He also said national health guidance from organizations like the Harvard Global Health Institute is now more supportive of the idea that students can return to in-person instruction safely.

A district working group had been looking at how to implement a possible move into Phase 2 for several weeks. Under the revised plan, most students will be on campus at the same time on Mondays, Tuesday, Thursdays and Fridays. All students will remain in online classes on Wednesdays.

Ream said that so-called “C Day” needed to remain remote so teachers could support the more than 1,000 students who are expected to continue all-online learning through the Digital Learning Initiative. He said the district does not have enough teachers to fully staff in-person classes and meet the needs of DLI students.

“Obviously, in a Phase 2, we would want to get to five days,” he said. “We don’t have a pathway there right now. We would have to increase staffing or change some things in order to get there.”

The board left the timing of the move up to the superintendent. Under Ream’s suggested timeline, the youngest students would start the transition first. He said kindergartners through second graders could begin four-day in-person classes by February 22. Other elementary students could start by March 1, middle schoolers by March 8 and high schoolers by March 15.

Ream said, even once they finish the move to Phase 2, the district will still be a long way from “normal” school operations. Over the next few weeks, administrators will be looking at ways to add partitions and remove unnecessary items in classrooms, to provide the most possible space for students to distance. Ream said they will be working on new procedures for how to manage student lunch periods – and in the middle and high schools, they’ll be considering the possibility of switching to a block scheduling system, with students taking fewer classes a day for longer periods.

On Tuesday night, the district heard from a number of supporters of phasing up – many of them parents. They pointed to the students struggling this year, particularly emotionally, and argued some would be permanently left behind unless they got more face-to-face interaction soon. Several said they thought even four days would not be enough, but that they were pleased the district was taking a step in that direction.

However, opponents, including a number of teachers, said they saw phasing up as a safety risk, since it would be impossible to continue the social distancing practices they have done with only half of students on campus at one time. They said the change could lead to more students being quarantined when someone else in the class gets COVID – actually creating a less consistent educational environment for them.

School board chair Muszkiewicz said he understood there were strong disagreements about the best way to move forward, but that he trusted Ream and the district administrators to put together a plan for returning to classes as safely as possible.

“We are one district; we are one community,” he said. “We must respect this process, and we must continue to pull together and do our best for our kids.”

Trustees Muszkiewicz, Sullivan, Siobhan Hathhorn, John McEwen, Jennifer McKee and Jennifer Walsh voted to move into Phase 2. Trustees Terry Beaver and Libby Goldes opposed a move.

This story has been updated. The original post is below.


Students in the Helena School District will begin returning to in-person classes four days a week, starting in about a week and a half.

The district board of trustees voted 6-2 Tuesday to shift from Phase 1 of the school reopening plan to a newly revised Phase 2. Helena Public Schools has been in Phase 1 – the “hybrid model” with students in person two days a week and online the other three – since the start of the school year.

Superintendent Tyler Ream recommended the district move into the modified Phase 2. He said it’s become clear that a number of students have fallen behind academically and are suffering socially and emotionally during hybrid instruction. He also said national health guidance is now more supportive of students returning to in-person instruction.

Under the new Phase 2, most students would be on campus at the same time Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. All students would still be in online classes on Wednesday – a “digital day” that Ream said was necessary so teachers can meet the needs of students who continue fully-remote classes through the Digital Learning Initiative.

The board left the timing of the move up to the superintendent. Under Ream’s suggested timeline, the youngest students would start the transition first. He said kindergartners through second graders could begin four-day in-person classes by February 22. Other elementary students could start by March 1, middle schoolers by March 8 and high schoolers by March 15.