Missoula County Public Schools prepare for  in-person schooling

MISSOULA - Missoula County Public Schools plans to bring back students for the Fall 2020 semester. In the July 14 board meeting, officials addressed what the district can do to keep students in the classroom without furthering the spread of COVID-19. Plans will be finalized in August before students return to school. 

“We are committed to some type of in-person learning,” said MCPS Superintendent Rob Watson. 

MCPS published guidelines for students to be back in classrooms based on Gov. Steve Bullock’s Safe and Healthy Schools in Montana plan, as well as from the Montana Office of Public Instruction and The American Academy of Pediatrics. The guidelines ask students and faculty to social distance, wear masks and also prepare for extensive contact tracing. 

 Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney said on a call with reporters July 2 that in-person interaction is important for students to find structure in meals, as well as family support from counselors and childcare programs. 

“While I am certain this pandemic has affected all Montanans in one way or another, our students and those responsible for educating them have faced particularly immense disruption during this emergency,” Cooney said.

At the board meeting, MCPS noted that students have already lost several months worth of reading and math skills. Student’s mental health is also affected, of which 57% rely on school sponsored programs. 

The plan is to open schools with caution in the fall. Students will be required to social distance and masks are now mandatory in Montana for all people over the age of five, effectively encompassing all grade levels. 

Phase two of the MCPS plan hopes to limit students from intermingling during the day and plans to do so by modifying large group areas like cafeterias to space out more people. The district also planned to change how extracurricular activities meet, some parts moving to an online format. 

“Our staff seemed to land on the schedule where we have half the students Mondays and Tuesdays, and the other half Thursday and Friday,” Watson said regarding the Missoula schools.

Wednesdays will be used as a flexible day for students who need extra help from teachers, and also gives the district a day to sanitize the school. The school day is also set to be shortened to give more time to cleaning before and after school as well as buses.

Seeley-Swan High School currently plans to operate its normal four-day week with Friday used as an intervention day. Principal Kellen Palmer wrote in an email following the MCPS board meeting that while school days will be the same, the way classes happen will change. 

“We will likely operate on a block type schedule with the students taking one class in the morning and one in the afternoon of the first semester,” wrote Palmer. “This will give us more static groups and allow for contact tracing if needed.”

SSHS also plans to have all students in the building everyday, unless state or local mandates divide students into alternating groups. If a student or staff member tests positive, there would likely be a short closure of the school to prevent further spread of the virus, while health officials can trace and isolate exposed people. 

During their meeting, MCPS also changed how students can transfer from one school to another. Before, students were free to apply for different campuses but now priority goes to students with siblings in other schools

Montana continued to increase in COVID-19 cases in the month of July. While the state is still in phase two, which allows for schools to operate in a larger capacity, the district noted that county health department guidelines may be stricter, requiring distant learning.

“This is not going to be perfect, this is something we are not used to,” Watson said. “But it goes back to what I said before about being flexible and adaptable and doing the best we can do.”


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