The Anaconda School District will revert to all-remote learning for two weeks starting Monday after a surge in COVID-19 cases and close contacts in schools.
Justin Barnes, superintendent of Anaconda schools, said Friday the district is taking precautionary steps after more than 20 staff members — or a quarter of the district’s staff — have either tested positive for COVID-19 or been deemed close contacts, with most cases being the latter.
“These individuals are primarily close contacts but still required to quarantine for the mandatory two-week period, which has led to us having to already send both staff and pods home,” Barnes said. “We have managed to the best of our abilities thus far but we simply do not have the staffing to continue to offer in-person learning until we resume school on October 19th.”
The Anaconda-Deer Lodge County Health Department logged in 31 additional cases between Monday and Friday and is currently managing 36 active cases in the community. County health officials said about two-thirds of the new cases have been linked to a recent wedding event that was neither reviewed nor approved by the department.
The school closures come on the heels of a recent tragedy on campus, adding to the stress and anxiety the students may be experiencing, district officials said.
“I want to make sure that all families know that we have a crisis team available as well as counselors should you or your children need to come in and talk with anyone,” Barnes said. “COVID as well as recent events have brought about many changes and we at the district are very empathetic to this.”
He said students who are struggling and their families are urged to reach out to the district at 406-563-6361 at any time, and staff will help connect them with a school counselor and other resources.
“We have a solid crisis management team with about a dozen staff members on the team, and they are always here to help,” Barnes said. “The second they found out about the tragedy, they started reaching out to students and have been really helpful.”
Meanwhile, students will each have a personal computer or iPad to use for instruction during the two-week closure, he said. Those that don’t have a device yet should immediately contact the school and make arrangements to pick one up.
The district will also provide hot spots for students who live in households without internet connection, Barnes said.
Teachers will provide live instruction and stream lessons when applicable for students at the Junior/Senior High School, Fred Moodry Intermediate School and Lincoln Primary School.
Students enrolled in the Center of Excellence and the Copper Academy, meanwhile, will still be required to attend in-person learning.
“This is simply because they have the staff to continue teaching their pods for the time being,” Barnes said. “The two buildings are isolated, and none of the teachers or staff there have been deemed close contacts or tested positive.”
Barnes added that the district will contact students who need to attend in-person instruction to meet state requirements.
Fall sports teams will also take a hiatus for the next two weeks, after the high school volleyball team was put under quarantine and a couple of football players have been notified as close contacts.
“Homecoming was scheduled for next week but we’ve postponed it to a later time in the season, but we don’t know when that will be yet,” Barnes added.
The district will also continue to offer breakfast and lunches for its students from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Monday through Friday, at the following locations: Opportunity Park, T. Peters Day Care, Cedar Park Homes, Mount Haggin Park, West Valley, The Discovery House and the Head Start.
Families also have the option to pick-up meals at Lincoln Primary, Fred Moodry Intermediate and the pick-up Junior/Senior High School.
“We’ve been practicing and preparing for a closure in case this happened, so our staff are all trained and are equipped,” Barnes said. “I’m proud of our staff and I’m confident they’ll do well to give students quality education.”
In the meantime, the district will conduct a deep cleaning of its buildings and will prepare for the flu season.
“Flu season is on the radar. So we’ll have a flu clinic coming in to set up at each of the schools in the coming weeks,” he said. “Any student who wants to get a flu shot can get one for free.”
Leigh Ann Holmes, director of the Anaconda-Deer Lodge County Health Department, said the school district has been working closely with the health department on the COVID-19 cases and will be providing flu shots at the school and throughout the community in the coming weeks.
Holmes said while the state's map of COVID-19 cases lists only a cumulative total of 123 cases in Deer Lodge County, that number will increase in the coming days as more contacts linked to the wedding event get tested.
"We have identified all the contacts from that outbreak of cases and have notified all of them," Holmes said. "We have one more day of testing, and I am hopeful that our numbers will have peaked and will go down after more people get tested."
Holmes said the county has been testing 50 to 100 individuals a day. More than 100 residents are currently under quarantine orders.
"Our numbers have stayed relatively low and consistently, with the exception of the Montana State Hospital and the START program, until this outbreak from the wedding event," she said. "I would encourage people to continue follow safety guidelines when social-distancing is not possible."
Meanwhile, several businesses have voluntarily closed out of precaution due to the recent surge of cases in the county, including Club Moderne, the Barclay II Supper Club, Smelter City Brewery and two day care centers, among others, Holmes said.
"Some of those businesses have staff members that were identified as close contacts and then chose to close because they wouldn't have the capacity to operate," she said. "The health department did not tell the businesses nor the schools to close."
Holmes said the recent surge in COVID-19 infections will encourage the community to work together and stay vigilant to prevent the spread of the virus.
"I don't blame anyone for the recent outbreak. It really isn't anyone's fault -- we all want to be with our friends and family," Holmes said. "All we can do as a community is learn lessons from our mistakes and move forward."
She said the health department is happy to work with folks that plan on having events with over 50 attendees, as those events need to be reviewed and approved by county health officials.
Meanwhile, Anaconda's Oktoberfest is still set for Saturday, Oct. 10, Holmes said Friday evening. The health department, however, will be meeting with the event organizers on Monday to reevaluate the situation and review plans.