SLE continues with distance learning for rest of the year

The Seeley Lake Elementary voted unanimously May 1 to continue with distance learning through the end of the school year June 4. They also adopted a declaration of unforeseen emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic that allows them to continue to receive state funding through June 30.

Following Governor Steve Bullock’s announcement to allow schools to reopen May 7, SLE Superintendent Daniel Schrock elicited feedback from SLE staff and parents and consulted with the Western Montana School Administrators, Missoula County Public Schools and Seeley-Swan High School Principal Kellen Palmer.

Schrock reported to the board that the SLE staff were overwhelmingly apprehensive with the prospect of resuming face-to-face instruction with students given the size constraints of SLE’s classrooms that would make appropriate social distancing near to impossible to enforce.

Staff also highlighted the good work that is being done with distance learning. They felt that in some ways that momentum would be lost if they return to the classroom. With only four weeks left in the school year and the time needed for readjustment, SLE would likely be ahead of the curve with the staff and students’ familiarity with the technology and instructional practices if SLE was forced to close at some point in the 2020-2021 school year.

In his recommendation, Schrock wrote that the majority of SLE parents, who were asked to complete a survey through Survey Monkey, were not in favor of reopening school given the short time left in the school year, the progress that has been made in distance education, and health and safety concerns for their children. Some parents said that they would not allow their children to attend if the school were to reopen due to previous health conditions.

Schrock recognized that one parent in favor of reopening spoke of the difficulty facilitating their child’s education while being a single parent and working full time and the disruption to the social ties with classmates.

“That perspective is valid and I appreciate the feedback and the honesty in which it was conveyed,” wrote Schrock.

Schrock wrote that most of the WMASS Superintendents agreed that reopening the school was not in the best interest of staff, students and community health and safety. They were recommending to their respective Board of Trustees to remain closed for the rest of the academic year. Reasons included those raised by the SLE staff and parents with respect to the risk vs. the reward of reopening school at such a late date in the school year. Another concern was in accommodating proper social distancing with respect to school buses and transportation requirements that would be necessary to reopen their schools.

“While I greatly miss our students, as do our staff, I simply could not recommend to the Board of Trustees to reopen the school,” wrote Schrock to the Seeley Lake Elementary community. “The Governor’s guidelines and the Missoula City-County Health Department recommendations made the decision easy. We simply could not reopen given the social distancing requirements, temperature checks and sanitation requirements in keeping you safe as well as our staff.”

There was no discussion or public comment during the board meeting. Schrock shared with the board that Missoula County Public School unanimously voted earlier in the day to continue with remote learning. He is also not aware of any other schools in the state that will resume in-classroom learning for the remainder of the year.

The board unanimously voted to remain in distance learning through the end of the year.

Following the decision, several parents reached out to the Pathfinder expressing their frustration with the decision. They felt their input encouraging the school to reopen was not considered in the decision.

“Our children need to be back in school. They are NOT part of the high risk population and those that should stay home,” wrote parent Althea Garland in a letter to the Pathfinder. “I’m sorry, but the last three-four weeks of classroom education is better than what they’ve missed these past seven weeks. If bars and restaurants can open then so should our schools!”

Board Chair Ryen Neudecker confirmed with the Pathfinder that the board did receive all the comments, not just the summary. While a handful of parents supported reopening, the majority of the staff and parents wanted the school to remain with distance learning.

In the meeting, Neudecker highlighted that the teachers would like to start discussions and preparations for reopening in the fall. This was information conveyed in a letter to the board from the Seeley Lake Organization of Teachers.

Garland wants to know if SLE will offer summer programs or starting the 2020-2021 school year early to help students get caught up on time lost in the classroom.

In the information shared with the SLE community on their Facebook page, Schrock said they will be meeting with stakeholders to discuss end-of-the-year activities and what they can do safely.

“Resiliency takes on new meaning within the context of this school year,” wrote Schrock. “While some states and school districts have already thrown in the towel on their academic year, SLE and Montana continues to do our level best to learn and grow in spite of our circumstances and challenges.”

The next board meeting is scheduled for May 19 at 5 p.m.


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