GREAT FALLS — In a nearly four hour board meeting Monday night, GFPS trustees approved the "Healthy, Safe and Secure Schools Reopening Plan" for the 2020-2021 School Year by a vote of 5-2.
Jan Cahill, Mark Finnicum, Jeff Gray, Gordon Johnson, and Kim Skornogoski voted to approve the plan. Bill Bronson and Teresa Schreiner voted against adopting the plan, but explained that they weren’t opposing the plan itself. Instead, they were concerned that now is not the best time to reopen schools, given that 97,000 children reportedly tested positive for Coronavirus in the past two weeks as some schools have begun to open across the country, and case counts continue to rise across Montana.
“I approve of the strategic plan as presented for reopening, my opposition overall is just the fact that our numbers continue to rise in the community,” Schreiner explained. “I just feel that we could be near presenting a situation where we could have to close schools and possibly close the economy at some point if we had a case of spread in any of our school districts. So, my concern would just be that we would be in a situation where we would have to close, overwhelm our hospitals, overwhelm the community, and we would be back where we started.”
Both Schreiner and Bronson agreed that there isn’t one, clear cut answer to the question of how best to reopen schools in the coming weeks. They also cited a desire to see community spread slowed before students are sent back to school.
As for the approved and finalized plan, there are several things that are important to know. The full plan can be found on the Great Falls Public Schools website, but here are some of the highlights:
- The District Plan for Face to Face learning in our schools will be modified by the Health and Safety protocols and requirements put into place.
- When the district learns of positive cases in student or adult populations, they will work quickly to identify and isolate anyone who may have been exposed
- Great Falls Public Schools is offering full time, high quality, remote learning opportunities to students and families who desire this model of Instruction.
- Because of the staffing needs for remote learning, students and families are asked to make a commitment to this endeavor. In the secondary (7-12) students and families are asked to make a minimum commitment of one trimester in the middle school, and one semester in the high school.
- 4 Phases:
- Phase 1 - Red (Critical Risk)
- Distance learning
- Buildings closed
- Phase 2 - Yellow (Moderate Risk)
- Buildings open with social distancing
- Masks required
- Remote Learning optional
- Phase 3, 4 - Green (Minimal Risk)
- Buildings open
- Social distancing “as is practical”
- Masks encouraged
- Phase 1 - Red (Critical Risk)
- All GFPS staff will sign a release statement at the beginning of the school year that guarantees that they are personally responsible on a daily basis to monitor their own health and potential COVID-19 exposure.
- If a student exhibits symptoms or has been exposed, then they must stay home from school and seek medical attention. They may not return to school until they have been cleared to return to school by health care officials and meet the District’s inclusion criteria.
- Elementary and Middle School students are in class and grade level cohorts.
- Schedules are designed to limit large gatherings in the Library, Gym, lunch area or playground.
- High Schools will implement Block Schedules to reduce frequency of movement and make time for cleaning.
- Large group gatherings will be mitigated with physical distancing, masks or eliminated.
- Physical distancing of students and staff will occur to the degree necessary for the activity, event and location. In most classrooms 3-6 feet is achievable.
- The wearing of masks will be required in most settings, especially where optimal physical distancing cannot occur. For example, on school busses and in some classrooms.
- Some offices may have transparent barriers for student and staff protection.
- Limited numbers of spectators will be allowed at student events and there will be adequate physical spacing between seats and rows in common gathering places.
- Hallway traffic will be one way if possible. Clearly defined and marked flow directions will be posted in hallways. Stanchions and retractable roping may be utilized to route traffic patterns.
- All staff, visitors and students must wear a cloth face covering or approved personal protective equipment (PPE) when they come into a school or district building and must wear that face covering whenever they are in common areas, when in the presence of a known health compromised students or staff members, and any shared areas where a physical distance of six-feet cannot be maintained (shared offices, classrooms with students, etc.)
- Some classrooms may not have physical distancing of six feet available and we recognize the need for students to take breaks from wearing their masks. Any “mask breaks” will be taken during quiet times of students working independently.
- The Health Services Team will respond and determine appropriate course of action:
- Ill students or staff will be isolated and sent home.
- Determine if building closure is needed.
- Communicate with all affected individuals.
- Initiate cleaning procedures.
- Disease surveillance and contact tracing will be initiated to identify those at risk.
- Issue notices for self-isolation or quarantine.
- Implement reopening or return-to-school dates.
- Monitor confirmed cases and those who have excluded.
- Coordinate with the Cascade City/County Health Department.
- Parents are encouraged to transport students whenever it is feasible to do so.
- Students will be assigned seats on the bus according to the recommended standards.
- Family groups of students will be asked to sit together on buses.
- Students will be seated two to a seat on most routes.
- Masks will be worn by students on school buses.
- Windows will be open to provide ventilation when feasible.
- The District will limit the occupancy of events to follow current State Health Officials and Cascade County CCHD guidelines.
- Events may be staggered, offered with limited viewership, or canceled if safety guidelines cannot be met.
- The District may require attendance sheets or seating charts for events to assist with contract tracing.
- The District may require Health Screening for all those in attendance
- GFPS campuses will allow limited access for pre-approved visitors, vendors and volunteers.
- In order to enable contact tracing and enhance the health of the District, approved visitors will not be allowed access beyond the Main Office without a mask or cloth face covering.
GFPS Superintendent Tom Moore said that he was happy to have the plan finalized and put in place, but that doesn’t mean that the next two weeks before schools restarts will be easy.
“Making sure that our staff is trained and well-versed in what the new protocols are going to be,” said Moore, when asked what was next for the district after approving the plan. “Our teachers are dispersed throughout the summer, they’re out on vacation still, and so bringing them back maybe a little early and having to engage them differently to prepare them for the changes that are taking place. We needed to make sure that the board was in favor of moving in this direction, so we got that accomplished this evening and now we’ll be working with our staff between now and the beginning of the school year to ensure a smooth opening either online or face-to-face.”
Some education officials across the country have adopted the term “COVID slide” to refer to the learning loss that many students are likely facing after being out of classrooms since May. Moore said that that was one of the main reasons that he and other board members were adamant about getting students back into the classroom for face-to-face learning sooner rather than later.
“(We need) to assess where students are actually at and do some testing and assessment with them and then be able to personalize some of the remediation and some of the help that students are going to need to get caught back up,” Moore explained. “Then also to acquaint them with some of the technology that we’re going to be implementing if we do have to go back to school closure; Moodle, Google Classroom and some of the other platforms that our teachers have been working on since they had to be forced to do remote learning.”
While the board members night not all have agreed on approving the plan, they all agreed that changes are likely as we move closer to the start of the school year and beyond. It appears probable that, as we learn even more about Coronavirus and what the district can do to keep its students, staff, and their families safe and healthy, new protocols and rules may have to be adopted on the fly.