Flathead High School Reports Highest Number of COVID-19 Positives in State

Seventeen students and three staff members have tested positive according to statistics compiled by state health department; district 'pretty close' to critical staffing shortage

By Andy Viano
Flathead High School, as seen on Aug. 1, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

No K-12 school in Montana has confirmed more positive cases of COVID-19 than Flathead High School, according to data compiled by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services that was released on Thursday.

Seventeen students and three staff members had tested positive at Flathead, according to the report, while only one other K-12 school in Montana had reported more than seven confirmed cases (Great Falls High, 11).

Kalispell Public Schools Superintendent Micah Hill said that according to his most up-to-date numbers, 13 of the cases at Flathead remain active and 64 students and staff are at home under quarantine, although those numbers are changing on an almost daily basis. The school’s enrollment was 1,516 in 2019-20, according to the Montana Office of Public Instruction. One of those currently in quarantine at Flathead is the school’s principal, Michele Paine, who announced that information in a video to students and staff earlier this week.

Despite the rise in cases, Hill said the Flathead City-County Health Department has reassured him there is no indication the virus is spreading within the school. Hill has been told that each positive case has been connected to an outside activity and that, so far, all quarantined students who have been tested for COVID-19 have had their tests returned negative.

The larger concern, Hill said, remains the availability of staff. The district is facing a major shortage of substitute teachers and has undertaken active recruitment efforts, including offering incentives and referral bonuses, to moderate effect. KPS held an orientation for 24 new substitute teachers on Wednesday, Hill said, and six of them were already working Thursday morning. In addition to boosting the number of subs, teachers are filling in to cover other classes during their planning periods, and para-professionals and administrators are stepping in to oversee other classrooms. The quarantines in particular are making staffing difficult, with Hill saying the district was “pretty close” to reaching a pressure point where continuing to fill in gaps would be impossible and closing the school would be the necessary next step.

“It’s really all hands on deck to keep things open,” Hill said.

In addition to measures taken in school to combat the spread, Hill stressed the importance of students and staff staying vigilant outside the building to protect themselves. The fact that positive cases have been the result of outside activities has led to concern that proper precautions — mask wearing, social distancing, proper sanitation — are not being taken outside of school in all cases.

In addition to the positive cases at FHS, the DPHHS report shows 51 positive cases have been confirmed in Flathead County, spanning 17 different schools. They include seven cases at Kalispell Middle School, three cases at Glacier High School and three at Muldown Elementary School in Whitefish, as of Sept. 18. Muldown announced earlier this week that the entire third grade class had been placed into a two-week quarantine because of an outbreak.

The complete list of schools with confirmed coronavirus cases is available at on the DPHHS website.

andy@flatheadbeacon.com

CORRECTION: The report published by DPHHS says school case totals are accurate as of Sept. 18, which was first reported in this story. Kalispell Public Schools later clarified case totals were accurate as of Sept. 23. 

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