GREAT FALLS — When teachers, students and parents arrive at schools in Great Falls on day one, the school experience that they will encounter will be a far cry from what they’re used to. Closed since March due to the Coronavirus pandemic, schools have undergone a massive facelift in their classrooms, hallways and otherwise to prepare a safe return to schools.
“Students are going to arrive outside; we are lucky that the majority of our classrooms have an outside door, and so we have full-time aids now this year which we did not have before,” said Mountain View Elementary School principal Jennifer Martin. “We’ll have personnel assigned to different places around the building greeting those students and showing them where to go into the classroom. One of the things that’s different this year is our teachers are actually going to start in the classrooms right at 8:10, we’re going to let students come in versus staying on the playground and playing, which was typical prior to COVID.”
The changes start outside the classroom, and don’t stop there. Mountain View has opted to eliminate the use of lockers and water fountains, and do as much as they can to minimize the amount of materials and resources, like books, that are shared. Kourtney Holten is a fourth grade teacher at Mountain View. She’s made a number of changes to her classroom in preparation for the school year, including numbering textbooks so that they can remain with only the student whose number matches that of the book. Holten says that, while providing a quality education is still a top priority, the health and safety of her students takes center stage this year.
Across town at North Middle School, the entire process of arriving at school has been overhauled.
“We are down quite a few students from the previous years because we have had a number of students that have decided to go to Remote, we have two full remote teams at the middle school level, which means between East and North we have about 260 students less than usual, so we will have smaller class sizes,” explained principal Tara Rosipal. “When the kids come (on the first day), they will be gelling in, and they also will be wearing masks. Each time they go into a classroom, they’re going to have to use hand gel as they enter, and we have socially distanced them as much as possible in seating arrangements in each classroom.”
At Riverview Elementary School, any unused desks have been removed from the classroom, to allow teachers to spread out the desks that will be used even more. Bottles of hand sanitizer may outnumber staff members, and hallway traffic will flow in one direction only, as is the case across the entire district.
Some other miscellaneous changes include extended lunch periods to allow for fewer students to be in the cafeteria at one time, blocked off water fountains, and numbers…everything is numbered (at least at Mountain View.)
One of the most common questions around the district is what happens if a student, teacher, or other staff member tests positive for COVID-19 during the year. According to the reopening plan on the GFPS website, the plan for that scenario is as follows:
- The District’s Health Services Team will respond and determine appropriate course of action
- Ill students or staff will be isolated and then sent home
- Health officials will determine if it is necessary to close the building where the infected individual(s) was
- If a school has to be closed, all students at that school will transition to remote learning until the building can be reopened
- That facility will be cleaned
- Disease surveillance and contact tracing will be initiated to identify those at risk
- Implement reopening or return-to-school dates
- The Cascade City/County Health Department will assist and oversee this process, and help with monitoring anyone who has tested positive
And those are just some of the safety measures that have been put in place. Schools will have additional protocols that they have chosen to implement in addition to the district’s guidelines.
“No classroom will be used for more than five periods a day, and so we can ensure that cleaning, and at the end of the day our custodial staff goes in and uses this big sprayer to spray everything down,” said Rosipal.” Students will be wearing backpacks and carrying water bottles and carrying their items with them at North Middle School instead of using the locker area. That way, they have all the materials they need with them and we hope it will also help us not share materials because they have their own materials with them at all times.”