HELENA – The superintendent of Montana schools told districts Friday to expect to finish out the school year with distance learning amid the coronavirus outbreak.
While Gov. Steve Bullock is making coronavirus policy decisions in two-week time frames, Superintendent Elsie Arntzen said she believes school leaders would like more certainty in planning the rest of the academic year.
Montana’s school closures and stay-at-home orders currently run through April 24. Even if they are lifted, Arntzen said she expects social distancing guidelines will remain in place, possibly into the summer.
“We encourage you to postpone graduation ceremonies until later in the year or come up with alternative plans to honor your graduates, ensuring equity in recognition for all students, including special education students,” Arntzen wrote in a letter to schools.
In other developments:
— The Montana state health lab now has enough coronavirus test kits to cover anyone recommended for the procedure by their clinician, officials said.
Earlier directives based on smaller supplies had recommended testing for people with symptoms who had traveled to an area with an outbreak of the virus or had contact with someone who tested positive.
Getting tested “would be the prudent thing to do so we can interrupt the chain of transmission,” Jim Murphy, communicable disease control and prevention bureau chief for the state health department, said Thursday during a press call.
Montana has more than 360 cases of the virus, the state health department said. Twenty-nine people remained in hospitals and six people have died.
In Gallatin County, which has 37% of the cases, the county health department is ordering patients, their close contacts and people awaiting tests to stay home or face fines, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported.
Almost everyone is cooperating, health officer Matt Kelly said, calling the order a tool officials can use if someone isn’t following recommendations.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.
— Just over 20,000 Montana residents filed new unemployment claims last week, the third week that many businesses were closed to reduce the spread of the virus, according to federal statistics.
Claims filed from March 14 through April 4 totaled just over 56,000, putting the state’s unemployment rate at 10.7%, according to the Tax Foundation.
— The Montana Landlord Association wants Bullock to rescind his directive barring landlords from evicting tenants or charging late fees for nonpayment of rent during the pandemic. The association argues that federal relief and expanded unemployment payments give renters adequate financial assistance.
— The state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks is suspending all float recreation and camping on Smith River through April 24. Agency Director Martha Williams says the decision was necessary to prevent further introduction of the virus into rural areas that have seen few cases and have small medical facilities. The river is already closed due to ice.
— The National Bison Range in western Montana is suspending public visitation to ensure the safety of staff and visitors. An increase in visitors to the range near Charlo in recent days was making social distancing difficult, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Thursday. A re-opening date has not been set.
— Officials with the Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development told an interim legislative committee Thursday that weekly travel spending in Montana has fallen from an average of $93 million to $34 million. The agency is delaying the tourism ad campaign it usually starts in March until people begin booking trips again, the Great Falls Tribune reported. Any non-work visitors to Montana are required to self-isolate for 14 days, under the governor’s directive.
— Meanwhile, the Montana High School Association extended its suspension of spring sports through April 24, the same date that school closures and a stay-at-home directive are scheduled to end.
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