GREAT FALLS — School districts in Montana have the option of re-opening classrooms for on-campus learning on May 7th, based on Governor Steve Bullock's three-phase "Re-opening The Big Sky" plan announced last week.
Bullock directed all of Montana’s public K-12 schools to close starting on Monday, March 16 due to the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus), and the closure has remained in effect. Schools have been conducting classes online since then.
During a work session on Monday afternoon, Great Falls Public School District trustees asked health experts about bringing more than 10,000 students, teachers, and staff back into the district's buildings.
Trisha Gardner, the health officer of the Cascade City-County Health Department, says she doesn’t think it is a good idea: “I think it opens up a potential floodgate for this to spread very quickly and easily throughout our community.”
She also says the main concern is asymptomatic spread. Since children and young adults have been seen with little to no symptoms, it could spread very easily without being detected.
GFPS trustees all agree they want to maintain the safety of their students and faculty. The purpose of this work session was to discuss if schools could open in a way that would be safe for all involved - students, teachers, and staff.
Questions from school board members and discussion from the CCHD, Cascade County Sheriff's Office, and district nurses all brought up points about what each step would entail to be able to reopen - and it seems there are too many roadblocks, although no official decision has been made at this time.
One issue brought up includes the possibility of PPE or personal protective equipment such as masks for staff and students.
Scott VanDyken with the Cascade County Sheriff's Office - who is currently serving as the county Disaster & Emergency Services manager - says there just isn’t enough: “What we have are very, very, very minimal supplies of everything. And apparently, we're not going to be getting any more. So we wouldn't even have enough to cover one third of your staff and your students.”
Next Monday - May 4th - the GFPS Board of Trustees will hold a special meeting at 5:30 p.m. for the sole purpose of deciding on whether to continue with school closures or re-opening schools in Great Falls during the month of May.
During the work session, trustees said that a survey of parents indicated that 71% of the more than 5,000 respondents said they are not in favor of re-opening schools at this point.
Several school districts in Montana have announced that they will not re-open classrooms for the remainder of the current school year, including Billings, Bozeman, Glasgow, Butte, and Whitefish. Others have not yet decided.
Several days ago, GFPS announced that it is adopting a "Pass/Fail" for the latter portion of the current school year for middle schools and high schools; click here for details. In related news, the Montana High School Association announced on Wednesday that all spring sports in schools across Montana have been canceled for the remainder of the school year.