An Uncertain School Year

The flexibility of school reopening plans will likely be put to the test

By Myers Reece

Each August ushers in a bittersweet excitement for parents and students, as kids prepare to once again return to the classrooms, hallways and social groups that shape their childhoods, while also saying goodbye to the laissez-faire fun of summer.

But this August is unlike any other, as the forthcoming pandemic school year will be unlike any other. Now, the anticipation is accompanied by uncertainty and, for some households, outright fear. Many families who plan to send their children back to in-person instruction are doing so with cautious optimism.

A number of Flathead Valley school district boards are meeting this week to finalize, or at least further refine, reopening plans that were introduced last month. The Beacon will have a follow-up story in next week’s paper breaking down the plans.

As I detailed in a July story, administrators and trustees are navigating uncharted terrain and sorting through guidance that can be conflicting, inconsistent, vague and ever-changing. The state Office of Public Instruction and governor’s office released separate reopening guidelines on the same day, and the political messaging doesn’t get any clearer at the national level.

Moreover, recommendations from public-health and medical groups aren’t uniform and are often dependent on an area’s level of COVID-19 prevalence, leading to more confusion. One point of widespread agreement, however, is that face coverings are an effective way of reducing virus transmission, whether you’re in Florida or Montana.

While superintendents describe the benefits of local control, they have also expressed a desire for clearer guidance on certain issues. Those concerns remain, and the implications are playing out publicly across the state as individual districts craft face-covering policies in the absence of a state requirement.

The governor’s July face-covering mandate didn’t include schools, which have the freedom, or burden, of deciding for themselves. The issue’s politicized environment guarantees pockets of uproar no matter what administrators decide, but any mandate would at least have broad scientific consensus in its favor.

Administrators are also seeking clarity from the state on the 50-person limit for events. Activities directors note that, after accounting for coaches and officials, the group-size limit wouldn’t allow for schools to field full teams, let alone have anybody in attendance. Thus, administrators are technically allowed to proceed with football, but may not be able to logistically do so because of the guidelines.

Survey results show that the vast majority of families in the Flathead Valley  — including more than 80% in the Kalispell district — plan to send their kids back to in-person instruction, although any number of circumstances, most notably a spike in COVID-19 cases, could change that calculus.

Still, it appears most families want their kids in the classroom, for the benefit of both parents and especially children. But undoubtedly quite a few of those families still have worries and reservations.

Other variables include the reality that students and staff alike will catch colds and flus for which the symptoms often mirror COVID-19, as well as the inevitability that positive COVID-19 cases will be confirmed in schools at some point.

School officials are working to account for those uncertainties by crafting flexible plans, detailing contingencies and merging remote-learning opportunities with in-person teaching. In a year of unpredictability, that flexibility will likely be put to the test.

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