Local Schools Report Low Rates of COVID-19 Infection Even as County Cases Rise

Cases declining in Kalispell Public Schools; positive tests and quarantines attributed to out-of-school gatherings

By Andy Viano
Chairs are spaced apart for a staff meeting at Kalispell Middle School on August 21, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The rate of COVID-19 infection among students and staff in Flathead County schools is dropping, even as the county itself endures a quickly escalating outbreak in the community at large.

According to data compiled by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS), 22 schools in Flathead County were currently monitoring at least one active case of the novel coronavirus among its population as of Friday, Oct. 2, but total case numbers remain at a manageable level in most places. It’s a welcome trend after Kalispell’s Flathead High School claimed the highest caseload in the state the first time this report was released on Sept. 23.

Kalispell Public Schools (KPS), in particular, has managed to turn its numbers downward across a district that includes 10 elementary, middle and high schools. As of Oct. 6, 66 students and 26 staff had tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the school year, but only 23 of those cases remained active, and just three of the 37 cases reported at Flathead High were active.

Schools are some of the only places in the county where a policy requiring mandatory face coverings is strictly enforced, a job that has been carried out by administrators, teachers and other staff throughout the district. It’s one of the reasons KPS Superintendent Micah Hill believes school cases are trending the opposite direction of the rest of the county.

“It’s a group effort, for sure,” KPS Superintendent Micah Hill said. “If teachers weren’t diligent and administrators weren’t diligent we’d be talking about closing our schools. We could make the argument that schools are probably the safest place to be right now.”

Administrators and public health officials have noted from the start of the school year that most cases involving school-aged children stemmed from gatherings outside school buildings. In a statement released on Monday, Interim Flathead City-County Public Health Officer Tamalee St. James Robinson said cases had been traced to “cast parties, slumber parties and birthday parties” and not in-school spread, and Hill said he continues to see no signs of spread within school buildings, although he echoed St. James Robinson’s plea for students to remain safe when not in school.

Initially, the number of coronavirus cases and related quarantines had administrators in Kalispell concerned about staffing levels, a problem exacerbated by a shortage of substitute teachers. Since August, 591 KPS students and 44 staff members have been quarantined as close contacts, but that number has also dropped in recent days. Currently, 231 students and only 12 staff are out on quarantine, and efforts to recruit substitutes have helped fortify the district’s available workforce. Kalispell Middle School (109) and Glacier High School (75) are responsible for the bulk of the current student quarantines.

Elsewhere in Flathead County, no other school had confirmed more than the six cases of COVID-19 at Muldown Elementary School, according to the state’s report. Muldown placed its entire third grade class in quarantine last month, a move that came shortly before the district pushed back a move to transition from a hybrid model to entirely in-person learning. Whitefish schools are tentatively scheduled to return to 100% in-person learning in grades K-8 on Monday, Oct. 12, with the high school moving to four days in-person. Students in most Flathead County districts, including Whitefish and Kalispell, also have the option to choose fully remote learning.

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