Butte and Anaconda schools are preparing to reopen in the fall, but details are still being worked out and administrators say it won’t be anything close to business as usual.
Educators have been using information provided by state officials as guidelines for the safe and healthy reopening of public schools, but those give districts flexibility for addressing their unique needs and challenges.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney released guidelines last week, then the state Office of Public Instruction offered its own. Both are meant to help schools open while keeping the spread of COVID-19 in check.
According to both plans, districts should consult their local health officials in preparing plans to reopen.
And nothing in the guidance plans prevents a school from taking additional precautions based on its needs.
Butte Central Schools and Butte-Silver Bow and Anaconda public schools are each taking in-depth looks at specific areas — including health procedures, school operations and technology — as they develop plans according to Gov. Bullock’s three phases of reopening.
Reopening for school districts has been categorized into three phases that align with Bullock’s plans for opening the entire state.
The state is currently in phase two, which would allow all schools to reopen in the fall while minimizing the spread of COVID-19 through strict social distancing and building safety protocols.
Judy Jonart, superintendent of Butte School District, said the district plans to reopen by Aug. 31.
“We don’t know what the next school year will look like yet until they are finalized,” said Jonart. “And plans have to be finalized with the Butte-Silver Bow health department.”
If the state is still in phase two by late summer, Jonart says students would be in school five days a week. The district is also working on plans to provide services to students who are medically compromised.
She said school leaders are considering face covering, health screens and social-distancing measures as part of their plans for in-person learning. She said staff aren’t considering taking temperatures of every student as they enter, since that can lead to congregations.
“We’re trying to reduce congregating, and we cannot ensure that confidentiality if we require students to get their temperatures taken when they walk in,” Jonart said.
Each school has a task force and committees involving the community, and parents will be updated as plans are finalized, Jonart said.
“We’ll also be putting a lot of emphasis on training kids on good hygiene, social-distancing and providing instruction on COVID-19 safety,” Jonart said. “That will be part of our school curriculum, because our students go home to their families, and we want to do our part to keep the community safe.”
Don Peoples Jr., president of Butte Central Schools, said the district also plans to offer school five days a week if the governor’s current restrictions are still in place by late summer.
He said the district is also considering face coverings, health screens, social-distancing measures and temperature checks for all students and staff.
“We’re hoping to have as much normalcy in our schedule,” Peoples said.
He said Central staff has been working on a blueprint since May with guidance from the diocese and the governor’s office.
“Different protocols are still in the works, and we’re working with all the different agencies to plan for Phase One, Two and Three, if we ever get there (to Phase Three),” he said.
Justin Barnes, superintendent of Anaconda School District, said the district plans to reopen in the fall and is also looking at multiple reopening scenarios.
“Based upon what we learned in the spring with COVID-19 and the feedback we have gathered from staff and parents we know we need to be prepared for any scenario,” he said in a memo to board members.
“In preparation for the 2020-2021 school year, the school administration has prepared for three scenarios when schools reopen and will also add an additional option for families who choose not to send their students to school because of concerns about COVID-19,” Barnes said in the memo.
Cathy Maloney, who oversees smaller districts of Butte-Silver Bow County as the county superintendent of schools, said they face their own challenges because of their size. She wishes that the guidelines from the governor’s office and OPI were more prescriptive.
Maloney said the smaller school districts are planning to reopen but developing the plans have been “overwhelming.”
“I would like to see stronger recommendations for different school sizes. I would like to see more of a template and guidance for reopening,” she said.
“We’re all scrambling to reinvent the wheel because it looks different for different school sizes,” Maloney said.
All school officials said nothing has been finalized yet and more detailed plans are forthcoming.
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