Big Sky School District board of trustees met for an emergency meeting on Jan. 5 to iron-out details of a phased opening to 100% in-person learning. PHOTO BY JANA BOUNDS

Bolstered by testing, strengthened by a task force

Big Sky School District returns to 100% in-person learning

Big Sky School District students will soon be fully returning to the hallowed halls of in-person education, per a recent unanimous school board decision. School districts across the nation are engaged in a calculated dance with Coronavirus. The largely piecemeal approach of government mandates with regard to the virus means that many districts have had to forge their own paths. Now, many weigh community safety with their mission to protect and foster the education of children. This last year has shown how distance learning programs are often lacking and kids as well as working parents have suffered.

A recent Memorandum from the Office of Public Instruction Superintendent Elsie Arntzen announced additional resources for Montana school districts from the U.S. Department of Education’s $170 million boost in ESSER II funds to Montana: “This new funding – more than four times the initial awards to State educational agencies under the CARES Act – is intended to help states and school districts safely reopen schools, measure and effectively address significant learning loss, and take other actions to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on the students and families who depend on our K-12 schools.”

Defining the virus as a “historic disruption of education” the publication Education Week, which is a product of the nonprofit Editorial Project in Education, has been tracking state-level mandates on K-12 in-person instruction.

“Some states may not weigh in at all on school operations, leaving the decisions entirely to local education and public health leaders,” according to an Education Week article. As of Jan. 4, eight states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have state-ordered full or partial closures in effect.

On the opposite end, Districts in Arkansas, Iowa, Florida and Texas have been ordered open. With no template in place for the majority of states, there has been a prevailing sense of urgency to figure things out on the local level. In Montana, where there is currently no order and no limit on group sizes in schools, administrators, school board members and health departments have been hard at work creating plans and contingency plans.

BSSD led the charge early in the virus to shut down for the safety of the community. Now, with an arsenal of COVID-19 tests bolstering its efforts, the district was able to shift from distance learning, to a hybrid model and soon will return to in-person learning fulltime, per a unanimous Dec. 15 vote by the school board. A Jan. 5 emergency board meeting further ironed out details for the phased approach.

“I think we are really leading the charge in using robust testing in the school to make decisions in the learning models,” BSSD Superintendent Dustin Shipman said in a later conversation. “Our capacity to test is certainly higher than most all communities in Montana.”

Board chair Loren Bough pointed out the hundreds of hours and dozens of meetings of the Back to School Task Force. Led by board trustee Whitney Littman, the group has found innovative ways to mitigate spread of the virus within the school, including learning pods, or smaller groups of children, during hybrid learning. Weekly testing has been implemented with all participating students and they strive to get more kids on-board. There will be plexiglass between desks, temperature scanning, social distancing, masks, hand washing and the continuation of learning pods.

“So far the system is working exactly as we intended. We are able to discover exposures and quarantine them,” Bough said.

Dr. Marlo Mitchem, secondary school principal, explained during the emergency meeting that the district strategically waited a week after the holiday to let the dust settle from the holiday, and performed the first round of testing.

“I think we feel really good about an elementary reopening next week,” she said, noting that every elementary school in Gallatin Valley is back to 100% in-person learning, with a remote option for parents who are uncomfortable with their children attending school in-person.

In a world where the new reality is that some kids might now be a full grade behind, Bough estimates maybe 5% of schools across the nation will be keeping students on grade level “and we are one of them.”

He also stated this is a move to help working parents. Big Sky is expensive and both parents work in the typical local nuclear family “and they didn’t sign up to be teachers.”

“As a community, we have to live with Covid, we have to get the message to parents and students that we have expectations,” he said.

Bough and Mitchem stressed that students are getting their COVID-19 exposure outside of the school building.

“This is really about the whole community working together,” Mitchem said, noting that parents need to support kids in making the right decisions outside of school.

As far as mitigating risks with athletics, the district will again be limiting spectators to sporting events. There will be mandatory COVID-19 testing across the board for student athletes and two busses will transport players to each game: one for JV/Varsity boys and one for JV/Varsity girls.

More information can be found in the BSSD Newsletters posted to the BSSD #72 Facebook page.

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