School Districts Preparing for ‘New Normal’ this Fall and Beyond

Gov. Steve Bullock gave schools the option to re-open on May 7 but local leaders say following safety guidelines and returning to traditional methods is a major challenge

By Andy Viano
Fourth-grade Stillwater Christian School teacher Rya Diede and her son Cal Diede participate in a physically-distant parade on April 24, 2020. Teachers and staff waved from the curb as their elementary students drove by. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The phased reopening of Montana that was announced last week gives school districts the option to welcome students and teachers back into their buildings as early as May 7, but superintendents throughout Northwest Montana are preparing for the likelihood that schools won’t be back to “normal” even when the 2020-21 academic year begins.

Gov. Steve Bullock issued an emergency declaration on March 15 that closed all schools because of the coronavirus pandemic, and since then districts have implemented various types of remote learning, much of it based online, to keep students engaged. Bullock turned the decision to reopen back over to local school boards in his April 22 announcement, and while the news at first offered hope of a return to traditional schooling, the safety precautions recommended by state and local public health officials make that option impractical if not impossible in most places.

At least eight superintendents — in Kalispell, Whitefish, Evergreen, West Valley, Libby, Eureka, West Glacier and Pleasant Valley — will recommend to their school board that remote learning continue to the end of the school year. The rest of Northwest Montana’s districts are scheduled make a decision in that regard this week, and most if not all are likely to go the same route.

Hillary Hanson, public health officer for the Flathead City-County Health Department, said that once schools make a decision about the remainder of this academic year, their attention should turn to what education is going to look like in August and September.

“Starting to reopen does not mean COVID-19 went away,” Hanson said. “Schools are going to have to consider a new normal in the fall, and the summer allows them the time to put that in place and really think about it.”

Health officials, including Hanson, expect the state and the Flathead Valley will see a rise in cases of COVID-19 as more people interact with one another, and disease experts believe the coronavirus will likely linger in this country for months if not years. That means any of the suggestions made to schools — like maintaining six feet of personal distance, limiting gatherings to 10 or fewer people and diligent cleaning practices — are likely to be the same for the foreseeable future.

“Everybody appreciates the idea of being able to return to normal but we are all operating like it’s probably not a realistic vision to be able to do that,” Matt Jensen, the superintendent of the Bigfork School District, said.

Jensen, who also serves as the president of the Northwest Montana Superintendents Association (NMSA), added that the decision his school board will have to make both now and in the fall is similar to the cost-benefit analysis countless other businesses and organizations are facing.

“Do you abandon the idea of coming back or do you abandon the idea of (following) that consideration? And if we’re picking and choosing from the list, what are we going to pick?” he said.

Given the confined spaces many students occupy, including cafeterias and buses, maintaining social distancing in a school environment is incredibly difficult, and Jensen also noted that if there were to be a positive case of COVID-19 detected in a school, subsequent contact tracing would send large swaths of teachers, students and staff into 14-day quarantine.

The other side of the equation is just as complicated. As more and more parents and caretakers return to work, kids of a certain age need somewhere to go, and almost no one believes the quality of education delivered remotely matches what could be learned in a traditional setting. In his reopening plan, Bullock asked schools to consider alternate methods like a “mix of in-person and remote learning” and “providing focused individual education, especially for at-risk students.”

Hanson has been conferring with the NMSA on a weekly basis in the last month-plus to try and identify best practices for the future. In each district, school boards will make final decisions, but the superintendents are hoping to map out a path forward that delivers the best possible education while protecting the safety of the community they serve, once they get a chance to catch their breath from what has been an unprecedented and chaotic last six weeks.

“At one of our recent meetings, (Hanson) said if you guys aren’t best friends right now you better become best friends,” Jensen said. “We’re going to be reinventing a lot of this stuff.”

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