Governor Bullock announced last week a plan to begin phased reopening of businesses, government agencies and schools that had been closed since last month to prevent the spread of coronavirus in Montana, including the option for local school districts to begin in-classroom learning starting May 7.
At their next board meeting, on Tuesday, April 28, the Missoula County School District Board of Trustees will begin discussing the many implications of potentially reopening Missoula schools. The district’s administrators will present trustees with a list of considerations, including maintaining social distancing as much as possible, encouraging the use of cloth face masks, and ensuring that vulnerable groups are protected from exposure to the virus.
The board will also be presented with contingency plans for high school graduation ceremonies, which usually take place in early June. “Our contingency plans will rely heavily on the guidance of our Missoula City-County Health Department and restrictions regarding crowd size or social distancing,” reads a notice posted on the MCPS website. “Receiving their guidance will help us plan a ceremony that honors our graduates, while at the same time protects student safety.”
The board will weigh these considerations along with public input from parents, teachers, staff and students themselves before making any final decisions, likely at a special board meeting on May 1. A final decision regarding graduation ceremonies may follow at a May 12 board meeting.
The Missoulian Editorial Board spoke with Missoula County Public Schools Superintendent Rob Watson by phone this past Thursday afternoon to ask him for this thoughts on opening local schools. Here’s a condensed version of his answers to our questions:
Q: What is your position on the schools re-opening?
A: I will be making a recommendation to the board that, based on the need for safety and the risks involved, we remain in remote learning for the remainder of the school year.
Our biggest concerns are just some of the unknowns, and the level of risks involved. There’s only a short time left in the school year. The risks do not outweigh the benefits of re-opening.
The governor released a list of things schools should consider. We will present this list to the school board, as they will make the ultimate decision. A couple of things on that list have caused us some pause. In situations where you cannot socially distance, for instance, it says folks should be wearing face coverings. With 9,200 students, 1,200 staff members — that’s a lot of face coverings. Some will come to school with them already, of course. But for those who don’t have them, we will have to find a way to supply them.
Q: What are some of the other considerations?
A: I talked to the county health department today. If a student turns up sick, there are certain procedures we’ll follow, and that all requires quite a bit of personnel. Last spring, when we had a pertussis outbreak, we had our nurses working with the county health department coming in with support. The health department, as I understand it, is stretched pretty thin right now, and it is unlikely they’d be able to provide much support to us. We don’t have enough nurses to cover every school.
The CDC has released guidelines around (how to respond to a student showing symptoms of coronavirus): Isolate the student, temperature check, we’ll need to contact the parents and quite possibly have them talk to a public health nurse.
The other thing is, if we have a confirmed case, the CDC recommends we shut down for two to five days. The first thing is to deep-clean the school building, and the other reason is to give the health department time to trace any contacts (who may have been exposed).
Q: If the school board does vote to re-open the schools, will MCPS be ready by May 7?
A: We would not be ready by May 7. We have a pretty long list of considerations we would have to plan for. We would have to sort through all of those before we would be able to know for certain when would be ready to reopen.
For example, Phase 1 is no groups larger than 10 and Phase 2 is no more than 50. Most of our buildings have at least 300 students, if not more. So maybe for half the day we shift half the kids or a quarter of the kids into the school building at any one time.
Q: What is something the community should keep in mind that hasn't been talked about much?
A: It’s worth noting that, when schools open in the fall, many of these considerations will still be in place. It’s beneficial for folks to understand that no matter what time of year, there will still be restrictions in place from the county health department. They will likely be similar to the governor’s, but they may be more restrictive. We have to follow guidance from the governor and the county health department no matter when we open, even if it’s next fall.
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