Helena School District leaders said Tuesday that, based on current COVID-19 conditions, their goal is to start the school year with students having in-person classes – but only two days a week. However, that plan could still change before schools open their doors.
The Helena board of trustees unanimously approved the school district’s Opening of Schools Plan during a Tuesday night meeting. That decision did not include any final commitment to the form classes will take when school begins.
School board chair Luke Muszkiewicz said approving the plan was only the first of many choices that will have to be made as the new school year approaches.
“Even if we take action on the plan tonight, I think we all understand that the plan is an evolving document,” he said.
The plan lays out details for four phases of reopening. The most restrictive, Phase 0, would be a return to all-remote learning. Phase 1 would split students into two groups and have each group on campus two days a week and doing online classes three days a week. In Phase 2, students would be in in-person classes each day, but substantial changes would still be made in schedules and activities. Phase 3 would be a return to near-normal operations, with some additional precautions.
Under the district’s plan, Superintendent Tyler Ream and his administration will have the authority to choose which phase is appropriate, in consultation with Lewis and Clark Public Health.
Ream said Tuesday that it’s very unlikely they can begin the school year with full in-person classes, given the current COVID-19 numbers in Lewis and Clark County. He said he hopes to be able to start in Phase 1, but that they will need to see improvement in COVID indicators over the next few weeks in order to return students to the classroom.
“As of now, Phase One for us is an optimistic goal; it’s the direction that we are moving as an organization,” he said. “It’s an optimistic goal, but it is by no means a guaranteed reality.”
Ream encouraged all district parents to find plans for childcare, both because five-day in-person classes aren’t likely and because they will have little warning if the district has to shift to a lower phase or temporarily close a school due to a teacher or student testing positive for COVID-19.
The district’s current plan is to have a “rolling start” to the school year. Classes would typically start on Wednesday, Aug. 26. Under a rolling start, that entire week would instead be used for training teachers and staff.
During the week after that, very small groups of students would be brought back to schools to help introduce them to their new classes, teachers and schedules. The district would put particular emphasis on helping sixth- and ninth-graders, who are transitioning into middle school and high school, respectively.
Full instruction wouldn’t begin until Sept. 8, after Labor Day – giving the district more time to make its decision on what phase to open in.
During Tuesday’s meeting, the school board took public comment – including from parents concerned that their children won’t get enough educational value from fully remote learning, and from educators who questioned whether the plan’s provisions were enough to keep employees and students safe.
Trustee Terry Beaver acknowledged the difficulty of starting a school year when many teachers do not feel safe.
“I just don’t see how one can teach effectively if you’re afraid,” he said.
District leaders said the chance of a successful return to classrooms will depend on the rate of COVID cases across the county. They asked everyone in the community to take steps like social distancing and wearing masks over the next few weeks.
“If you would like children to go back to school, please do your part to make sure that the rates are going the right direction, because right now they are not,” said trustee Sarah Sullivan.
County health officer Drenda Niemann said she will work on some metrics that school leaders can look at to help them decide whether the COVID situation in the county is sufficiently under control to consider in-person classes.
Regardless of what phase schools are in when they open, the school district is also giving students the option to choose fully online instruction, through the Digital Learning Initiative. Ream said about 600 students have already signed up for that option.
The East Helena School District board approved its own reopening plan Monday night. Superintendent Ron Whitmoyer said, at this point, they are expecting to begin the year with in-person classes five days a week. Elementary students would be assigned to two-class “cohorts” to reduce the number of peers they’re exposed to, and high school students would be on “block scheduling” with fewer, but longer, classes each day.
Whitmoyer said their plan is also subject to change based on the public health situation.