Schools Work to Remain Open Despite Absences

So far in the Flathead, no schools have had to close their doors due to COVID-19

By Micah Drew
Student lockers at Columbia Falls High School on Aug. 26, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

For Kalispell Public Schools Superintendent Micah Hill, it was a point of pride that the school district was the only AA district in the state that never shut down a school during the 2020-21 school year. 

With the passage of House Bill 702 last spring, however, which prohibited discrimination based on vaccine status and limited schools’ ability to quarantine close contacts, as well as the controversial nature of mandating face coverings in classes, Hill and other district superintendents expressed worry that they might not be able to keep schools open if the virus swept through classes and among staff. 

Eureka Public School District closed down its elementary school after more than a dozen staff tested positive for COVID-19 and a wave of infections spread through the schools. 

As of Oct. 12, however, Eureka is the only district in the region that has closed schools even as the area experienced a high number of COVID-19 cases. 

In the Somers Lakeside district, Superintendent Joe Price said it would take an absentee rate of 20% among students to trigger conversations about closing the schools and shifting to an all-remote teaching strategy. But when both the elementary school and middle school hit that threshold, the district kept going. 

“I’m not planning to have those discussions right now,” Price said in late September after the elementary school and middle school posted a 23% and 24% absentee rate respectively on Sept. 24. “While we’ve had a lot of people absent, it seems to be getting better each week.”

Last week, the district posted 13% of students absent on Monday, but the number dropped closer to 8.5% for the rest of the week in the elementary school while hovering around 15% for the middle school. 

Price says that despite the high number of students gone, the biggest factor in keeping the buildings open is whether enough staff is healthy. 

In Somers Lakeside, there have been between six and 11 staff members absent since Sept. 16, with 11 staff absences Oct. 6-8, representing 11.7% of district staff. 

“It’s a tremendous load on the principals, especially when we’re averaging three unfilled sub positions a day,” Price said. “But we’re able to maintain as we are, and we have a remote strategy in place for when it’s needed.”

At KPS, only 108 students have tested positive for the virus since the start of the school year, representing just 1.74% of the student population, but staffing is also an issue, especially with limited substitutes, according to Hill. 

“Teachers are covering for each other, doubling up classes and taking on the lion’s share of the work to keep our schools open,” Hill told the KPS board at its last meeting. 

Hill is currently working on providing testing sites for KPS as well as eight other districts, including one at the county fairgrounds and one at Snappy Sport Senter, in order to provide rapid testing for students and staff before and after school. 

“Whether it’s return to work or school by getting results immediately, or students that are symptomatic but are unable get tested, we’re eliminating barriers,” Hill said. 

The testing sites will be open before and after school and on weekends to allow students or staff to receive test results immediately on the way to and from the school if symptoms show up overnight or they are identified as a close contact. The district hopes to get the sites up and running this week. 

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