Kalispell Public Schools Superintendent Mark Flatau paid a visit to Flathead High School last week, checking in on one of the largest buildings that the sprawling district operates.
“It was an eerie, sad experience,” Flatau said. “A building that is usually a beehive of activity until 9, 10 o’clock at night was silent. And for an educator, that’s pretty sad, but we’ll get through it.”
Schools across Montana were closed last week by order of Gov. Steve Bullock, and all of them are reacting to that decision by preparing to refine learning plans if, but more likely when, those closures are extended. Many districts are on spring break through Friday, March 27 but administrators are planning for at least two more weeks of students and teachers at home. Flatau expected an announcement to come “in the early part of (this) week” to that effect.
Listen to Mark Flatau discuss the closures on the Beacon’s coronavirus podcast, available on Google Podcasts, Stitcher, Podcast Addict, Acast by searching “Flathead Beacon”
The first round of closures, however, left school employees and students scrambling. The governor’s office sent word just before 5 p.m. on Sunday, March 15 that there would be no school for two weeks, effective immediately, giving districts a little more than 12 hours to prepare.
Flatau and other area superintendents had actually been preparing for the possibility of school closures since late February, he said, but the week of March 16 was still a whirlwind. Teachers were advised to set up plans to conduct their classes remotely, curriculums began to be adapted, administrators scrambled to feed students who relied on school-provided meals, and boys and girls suddenly stuck at home in turn disrupted the lives of their siblings and parents.
Now, with a week’s worth of time to plan and assurances from the governor’s office that the next round of closures would not come on a Sunday night, teachers are gearing up to educate in a new reality. In Kalispell and Whitefish, the districts are planning to lean heavily on online teaching tools, namely Google Classroom, that they already use to varying degrees. But the main challenge both districts are weighing is equity. Teachers have varying levels of experience and comfort with online technology, students have varying amounts of access to those same tools, and grade levels and subjects are not all equally transferrable to an out-of-classroom setting.
The result is going to be a curriculum for students in kindergarten through high school that meets the minimum standards for advancing a student from one grade to the next but is unlikely to match the caliber of teaching that would have been delivered in a traditional setting.
“There’s just a reality that something is lost in the lack of regular interaction that our teachers currently have with kids,” Heather Davis Schmidt, the superintendent of Whitefish Schools, said. “I don’t want to pretend to anyone out there that the quality of instruction is going to be the same under these circumstances.”
What, precisely, that remote learning will look like is still up in the air. Flatau stressed that his schools wanted to be “nimble” in how they respond to the new teaching methods, and Davis Schmidt said her district would generally offer instruction and collect assignments on a weekly basis, but “each teacher is being creative in how we do that.” It’s difficult to make firmer plans, especially at the district-wide or school-wide level, because of how many moving parts are involved and the way that wider societal disruptions are trickling down to impact the lives of students, teachers and others school employees.
“Flexibility is the key in this unusual circumstance. We are being flexible with our employees and definitely flexible for our parents,” Davis Schmidt said. “We’re really focusing on this idea that whatever we come up with cannot be overwhelming for our parents, our students and our staff. We might have a family of four kids (in different grades) and both parents are trying to work, either remotely or working flexible schedules, and so we know that’s a huge burden on families. We’re just thinking about how (to do this).”
“We don’t have the expectation that Flathead High School is going to start their online class at 8:15. That’s not reasonable,” Flatau said. “But the fact is that class will continue, that instruction will continue, and learning support will continue.”
In addition to maintaining educational standards, districts are also focused on their most at-risk students. At least 95 percent of students in the Whitefish and Kalispell districts have internet access at home, and for the 5 percent who don’t, Spectrum is offering 60 days of free service, but even that is not an option for every student. And in families with more than one school-aged child, there may not be more than one usable device at a given time.
Beyond technology, schools are also wrestling with how to ensure that basic student needs are met. Columbia Falls, Whitefish and Kalispell districts have continued to offer free meals, with Flatau reporting that KPS had served about 1,200 meals per day last week. In Kalispell, the HEART Locker program, which offers essential products to students in need of clothing, hygiene products, school supplies and more, is considering turning the district’s parked school buses into mobile units that can deliver supplies to the community.
“In the hierarchy of needs, if you’re hungry, you’re not going to be able to learn. If you don’t have shelter, you’re not going to be able to learn,” Flatau said. “If we’re going to accomplish our goal of education, we have to ensure that kids are fed and clothed and have some level of appropriate housing.”
One bit of guidance came from the governor’s office on Thursday, March 19, when Bullock announced that time missed during the current closure would not need to be made up and that pupil instruction requirements during any future closure would also be waived, provided districts make up for lost class time through remote learning and offer other services, including meals, “customarily provided to students in schools.” If districts follow those guidelines, no missed school dates will need to be made up, and districts will receive full state funding throughout the closure.
In the meantime, school districts are pressing forward and ready to adjust their plans as necessary.
“I’ve reassured our families that we’re going to get through this — we always do,” Flatau said. “And we appreciate their flexibility and support.”