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UPDATE: Helena School buildings to remain closed

Posted at 5:30 PM, Apr 28, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-29 00:35:28-04

Helena Public Schools will not return for in-person classes this spring.

The Helena School District Board of Trustees voted Tuesday evening to follow Superintendent Tyler Ream’s recommendation to continue remote learning through the end of the school year.

District buildings have been closed since March 16, after Gov. Steve Bullock ordered schools across Montana to switch to remote teaching methods to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19. Last week, Bullock announced that school districts would have the option to return to classrooms as early as May 7, as part of a phased statewide reopening plan.

Ream said Helena School District leaders have spent the last few days looking at the steps they would have to take in order to implement social distancing and the other guidelines established by public health experts. He said it wouldn’t be realistic to get them all done in time to resume classes this year.

Ream outlined a phased reopening plan specifically for the district – saying it would be necessary to reopen school buildings to employees, plan for new procedures and train employees in those procedures before students could return to the buildings.

“What we did as of really Sunday and yesterday was to benchmark against that plan, to say ‘Hey, here’s where we are in terms of everything that we have to have in place, and here’s an honest assessment of where we are in relation to that specific area of guidance,” he said.

Ream said, of 21 guidelines and practices they believed would be needed for a “new normal” school environment, 15 would be uncertain or difficult to implement this spring. Even if they did put them into practice, he said they would likely have to close their current remote learning program in order to get it done.

While the district isn’t planning an immediate return to in-person classes, leaders say the work they have done so far will help them prepare to reopen schools – safely and in line with health guidelines – later this year.

“I’m eager to see our work turn toward the future, and I think making this incredibly important and difficult decision today is a big step toward that,” said school board chair Luke Muszkiewicz.

The board’s decision does not stop district leaders from considering some additional options. Ream, in the coming weeks, they will look at the possibility of bringing some small numbers of students back to campus – particularly those in need of specific additional services.

A number of school districts around Montana have already made their decision not to return to classrooms this school year. Townsend Public Schools announced Monday that they would continue remote learning through June. East Helena Public Schools will make their decision next week.

Helena’s decision does not determine what form graduation ceremonies will take. Ream said Tuesday that they are considering a variety of options for in-person ceremonies with small numbers of students, limited or no guests and full social distancing requirements. He said school leaders told him a final decision will have to be made by May 12.

UPDATE: 6:30 p.m.: The Helena Public School Board has approved a motion to continue remote learning through the end of the school year.

In-person classes will not return this spring.

Helena Public Schools Superintendent Tyler Ream is recommending the district continue distance learning and school buildings remain closed for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year.

The Board of Trustees heard the recommendation at a meeting on Tuesday afternoon.

District buildings closed on March 16th following an order from Governor Steve Bullock.

Bullock has given schools the option of reopening as early as May 7th as part of his phased reopening plan.

Any schools choosing to open would have had to follow strict social distancing and safety guidelines, including face masks for students and staff, keeping students in the group or classroom when possible, and canceling extracurricular activities.

However, the Office of Public Instruction (OPI), the Board of Public Education, the Montana Public Education Center and the union that represents Montana teachers have all urged district leaders to continue social distancing.

As of 5:30 p.m. the board had not yet voted on the recommendation. We will update you when a final decision is made.

On Monday, Townsend Public Schools announced it would continue remote learning for the remainder of the year.

East Helena Public Schools is set to make a decision next week.