SSHS to reopen in-person, other MCPS schools will be a hybrid

Missoula County Public School Board

MISSOULA – The Missoula County Public School Board of Trustees approved Superintendent Rob Watson’s recommended reopening plan on a split vote at their Aug. 11 meeting. MCPS schools will reopen Aug. 26 in Phase 1 - Hybrid model and Seeley-Swan High School will reopen Sept. 1 (pending board approval Aug. 20) in Phase 2 – Modified Schedule. Students will also have the option to choose the MCPS Online Academy for 100% remote learning beginning Sept. 8 until the District reaches Phase 3.

Watson presented a phased approach for a return to school:

• Phase 0 – Facilities closed and full time remote learning for all students

• Phase 1 – Hybrid Model of on-site and remote learning

• Phase 2 – Modified Model with on-site learning every day for all students with shorter days.

• Phase 3 – Traditional Model with on-site learning every day for all students with a full schedule

At the meeting, Watson presented the results of the parent survey. Of the 72% of parents that responded to the survey, 73% preferred in-person instruction and 26% preferred 100% remote instruction. Watson added that the results were different by age group with the highest percentage (76%) supporting in-person learning in the high school age group and the lowest percentage (70%) of support for middle school aged students.

For Seeley-Swan High School, Principal Kellen Palmer said of the 62% of parents that responded to the survey, 89% preferred in-person learning and 11% preferred online or remote learning.

Watson presented the board with a 14-day rolling average of various statistics including the number of confirmed and number of active cases, rate of transmission and number of active cases per 10,000, the rough estimate of the MCPS student body. Watson said this is the data that he used to base his recommendation.

Since late July, the number of confirmed cases and active cases in Missoula County has increased. The number of active cases has gone from 60-70 to 80-90 in the 14-day rolling average.

Active cases per 10,000, roughly the number of students. That hovers between 4-6 on any given day. If MCPS is a microcosm of the population and if the data is expanded out, then there will be six students in the district and their families that will be dealing with COVID-19 at any given time.

“That is something to watch and be aware of and if that number gets higher then we need to talk about it,” said Watson.

The rate of transmission, number of people infected by a positive case, for Missoula County is currently at 1. This is below the state average of 1.4-1.5. If the rate of transmission is greater than 1, the disease will spread.

The statistics will be updated regularly and will be available on the MCPS website. If there is significant change to any of the metrics, Watson said he would reevaluate what Phase they were operating in and make a recommendation to the board for approval to change phases.

Watson said it is important to watch the data but it doesn’t change his recommendation to start in Phase 1 Hybrid model for all the MCPS schools except SSHS which will start in Phase 2 with a block schedule. If they get to a point where the numbers concern him to a point of recommending a change in the phase, he would present that to the board for their consideration.

“I don’t think starting in Phase 3 is safe. I think starting in the hybrid model is conservative,” said Watson. “I think it gives us time to watch those case counts and make those decisions as we go along.”

Missoula County Health Officer Ellen Leahy told the MCPS Board that said she felt the reopening plan was “a very well structured, conservative plan” especially when measured against the guidance currently available. She added the slow introduction to in-person instruction will help everyone learn what they need to do and set a good foundation for the rest of the school year.

Jennifer Hall, M.D., pediatrician and parent, added during public comment that she felt MCPS and Missoula County has the tools to adjust to the reality of COVID right now. Based on the data, testing ability and the Health Department support, she thinks MCPS can send students to school right now and that the decisions should continue to be data driven.

Watson told the Board the MCPS Online Academy is an option to support staff and students who cannot return to face-to-face instruction. He feels it is important because students and staff can have an option that is rich and robust so the students can come back if and when the situation changes. According to Palmer, students that choose to learn remotely are still eligible to participate in extracurricular activities and sports.

There is a principal assigned to the academy to ensure students will be prepared to resume in-person learning second semester and it is important to him to be staffed by teachers employed by MCPS. He is also working to ensure that the online academy is not a barrier to the higher-level classes for high schoolers. There is an expectation that students engaged in 100% remote learning will have support at home to complete the work.

“I feel fairly confident that our online academy will be a well run program,” said Watson. “I think it will be productive and I think people will find it not the same, because you can’t replace in-person learning, but I think as an online academy it will be a good buffer that people can use this first semester and then get back into in-person learning at some point.”

Based on guidance from the Health Department, Watson said if students present symptoms for COVID-19, they will be sent home and will be recommended to see a medical professional. The hope is that between the parent and the medical provider will decide if a COVID test is warranted. If the student does get a COVID test, they have to stay out of school until the test comes back negative. If they don’t get a test, they need to stay out of school until they are symptom free for 24-hours.

The Health Department will do all the contact tracing for MCPS. If someone is identified as a close contact, exposed to a confirmed case, they would be required to quarantine for 14 days. If they develop symptoms, then it may require multiple tests. The Health Department will provide the release for that person to return to school.

Watson said if an entire class had to quarantine, it would be moved to remote learning for 14 days. If it is a single student or small group, the teacher will work with the student to make sure they stay caught up.

Teachers were given the option to telecommute and MCPS’s Human Resources will approve the request. Watson said the goal is to accommodate every telecommute request for the District. They are still working on the plan because he is unsure what the need will be for teaching staff with the online academy.

Palmer said that at this time, none of the SSHS staff has requested to telecommute.

“The staff has been very positive. They have adapted and been open to the changes in schedule and teaching that will go along with this year,” wrote Palmer in an email. “I’m so appreciative.”

All students and staff are required to wear face coverings. If students are unable to wear face coverings due to medical reasons, there is an accommodation process established for medical conditions that will be followed to establish reasonable accommodations for that student.

“We can’t just have students saying they don’t want to wear a mask today,” said Watson. “We have to have some sort of protocols in place and so that is the process that we use right now.”

Watson acknowledged that teachers are expected to build an in-person and remote classroom, which is a lot of extra work. They are trying to account for that by building in professional development days and shortening the day so teachers have more time for planning.

Board member Grace Decker spoke to what she called the “unintended consequences” of the proposed plan. She highlighted that allowing families to choose in-person or remote learning favors the privileged and MCPS is not supporting the equity of experience for all students. Those without the ability to choose, due to childcare needs or lack of resources to support their student, will have the bumpiest ride and often are the ones that need more consistency. She added they haven’t heard from teachers that are supportive of the plan.

Prior to the vote, the board listened to around two hours of comments about the reopening plan.

All of the teachers and staff that spoke during public comment said they wanted to be back in-person teaching their students. However under the current situation with increasing cases and testing results taking three to five days inhibits effective contact tracing. They didn’t feel returning to in-person instruction was safe for them or the students to start the year. No teachers or staff from SSHS spoke.

Other comments were specific to the plan:

• The ventilation system at SSHS is not HEPA compliant so the air is not being filtered enough to limit the risk for in-person learning.

• The assumption of parents when they took the survey was that in-person would only be considered if cases were declining. Many voiced concerns that Watson and the board are going with popular opinion instead of considering the data and they were misled when they completed the survey.

• How MCPS would handle substitutes was not addressed. They will move throughout and between buildings, possibly being in five different classrooms in five days. That will make it very difficult to contact trace.

• Finding substitutes has always been a challenge. Now in light of COVID, asking someone to come in and substitute for $11/hour when many substitutes are retired teachers putting them in the at-risk age category is not reasonable.

The motion passed 8 to 2 with Sharon Sterbis and Grace Decker voting against it.

To read the complete plan for reopening schools and COVID information visit A recording of the board meeting is also available on the Missoula County Public Schools Facebook page.


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