WILLOW CREEK — Willow Creek, a small Gallatin County town of just more than 200 people located southwest of Three Forks, reopened its school Thursday morning - one of the first schools in the country to do so amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
From social distancing precautions on school buses to the hallways to even in the classrooms, the staff at Willow Creek Public School have been preparing for this moment for days.
They say they are not taking this lightly. “I’ve trusted them for the last several years,” says Erica Wahl, a Willow Creek parent who joined others in dropping off her kids at school. “Why would I not trust them now?”
For the first time since Montana schools closed in mid-march, the little town of Willow Creek had two school buses picking up kids again.
“I’m thankful that Bonnie [Lower] listened to the parents and that she gave the kids an opportunity to finish out the school year,” Wahl says.
Wahl has lived in Montana her entire life and her kids, a second grader and a fifth grader, both attend Willow Creek.
“I’ve never doubted that the school hasn’t cared for my kids,” Wahl says. “My kids know that they can go to their teachers for anything and everything and they know that the staff is going to keep them safe and it’s not going to stop now. If anything, it’s going to be even extra caution taken.”
One by one, staff and teachers, including principal and superintendent Bonnie Lower, greeted them, swabbing for temperatures at the door.
“We’re putting all of the safety measures that we can into opening,” Lower says. “It’s our job to educate the children and we want to get them back in school. Once we talked to the school board about the number of students that would be coming back, the parents that would like to see their kids back in the school for a normal rest of the year, they voted to go ahead and let us open for the last 16 days of school.”
To get off the bus, kids have to take turns.
But watching closely, memories are hard to lose.
Some kids stretched out their arms for a hug they’ve been waiting for but couldn’t get.
“The students, they miss their teachers,” Wahl says. “The teachers miss their students. It’s family here. My daughter wants to tell her teacher goodbye. I mean, she misses her teacher so much. She called her teacher last week and talked to her for almost an hour about everything but school, just all of the things that are happening in her life because she feels like her teacher needs to hear that. That meant everything to me. I mean, it was suppertime and I was like okay, you have to get off the phone but she could have talked for another hour.”
The school is among the first to reopen across the country, with only about 40 kids out of 56 returning at their parents’ requests.
It’s a reality Wahl and teachers like Haleigh Hurst understand but know others might not.
“In a big school, I mean, Bozeman, there’s no way it can open up,” Wahl says. “We have essential workers in this community. I mean, there’s kids who are being left at home, trying to navigate school by themselves and can’t do it. I’m an airline employee. I was laid off so, in that aspect, I was lucky because I could stay home and homeschool the kids but even with me being right there guiding them, it’s like what did the teachers want?”
“I think that the hardest thing for me is that I’m not going to be able to run and give them the biggest hug ever,” Hurst says. “That’s been really tough. It’s really hard to be away from them, especially when you are around them every single day, more than your home.”
“At least they’ll be able to get back into the classroom, be a part of the instruction, and have the teacher's guidance to continue through the year,” Lower says.
Like Lower’s father, who graduated from Willow Creek Public School in the 1960s, Wahl hopes her kids graduate from Willow Creek, as well. “I don’t want my kids to remember this virus that consumed everyone’s life,” Wahl says. “They need some normalcy in their life and Willow Creek can offer that to the kids.”
The superintendent and principal say the school decided to reopen to also give their students a chance to learn all of the new social distancing rules -- and have a weekend to take it all in.<