Schools remain closed for rest of school year

by Daniel McKay
Whitefish Pilot | April 28, 2020 9:22 AM

Whitefish Schools will continue with their remote learning plan through at least the end of the current school year.

The Whitefish School Board on Monday voted unanimously during a special meeting to approve a recommendation by Superintendent Heather Davis Schmidt and administrators not to return to brick-and-mortar classrooms for the remainder of the year.

Davis Schmidt put out a letter to parents and the community last Thursday explaining her recommendation ahead of Monday’s meeting.

Since then, she said she received a number of comments from the community regarding the school closures related to the COVID-19 pademic.

“I’ve also received numerous emails. I received 35 emails in support remaining in a remote learning environment, and six emails would like us to resume on-site instruction,” Davis Schmidt said. “On Facebook I also did a little look at that just to get a sense. Overwhelmingly support also is for keeping our schools in a remote learning environment. It’s not really a formal poll by any means, but I think it does represent an overwhelming support from our parent community in particular, and it’s rare that we have families that reach out in such a way with regard to recommendations.”

While the last day of school is Thursday, June 11, Davis Schmidt called for concluding new content instruction on May 22 and using the rest of the time by meeting in individual student instructional needs, allowing for completion of missing assignments, cleaning lockers, cubbies and desks, teacher collaboration and return of Chromebooks and books.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock last week issued a plan for a gradual reopening of the state following a stay-at-home order related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Regarding whether school buildings would reopen on May 7, the governor placed the decision in the hands of local school boards.

School districts that choose to return to in-class learning would need to meet stringent requirements to keep students and staff safe, such as wearing masks and maintaining physical distancing in classrooms and limiting groups to no more than 10.

During the meeting, Trustees Katie Clarke and Betsy Kohnstamm asked how the schools would be addressing students that fall behind.

Virtual learning seems to make one-on-one intervention a bit more difficult, they said.

“I would argue that we’re going to do that in the same way we do that right now,” Davis Schmidt responded. “Our teachers are experts at this and they’re just getting in a groove and a routine, along with our students and families, of a remote learning environment. So I feel like we are identifying those students much more effectively than we were say four weeks ago, and our teachers are individually meeting those needs. And for any students that teachers are struggling to connect with, the principals are doing that, reaching out and making sure they can make those connections.”

Kohnstamm in particular said she’s concerned about those seniors just barely meeting graduation requirements.

“I feel that once a week contact with some of these kids may not be enough, and I’m just concerned that kids who might have been able to graduate in a non-digital world are going to fall through the cracks this spring. I just wonder whether some of these kids don’t need a one-on-one, someone to check in daily during the last month of school to really guide them through this last bit of the hurdle,” Kohnstamm said.

Kerry Drown, Principal of Whitefish High School, said measures have been made to ensure no one does worse than they were doing in a normal school environment.

“In those few cases with those kids, we decided to withdraw them from courses that were unnecessary — without any GPA damage — so they could focus their energy on the classes they do need for graduation. So we tried to help narrow their focus and their time, and we have a general rule right now to do no harm in that this particular environment, our resulting grades can only be better than what they would have received had they been together in they classroom. They cannot be damaged or cause a backwards spin with any of their grades as long as that kid is putting forth the effort,” he said.

In regards to WHS graduation ceremony, Drown also shared that the graduation committee speaking in regards to a “30,000 feet” perspective right now. Graduation for the class of 2020 has been scheduled to take place on June 6.

He said the committee has three options, all of which depend on the social distancing guidelines put in place at the time of graduation.

The first, the most restricted, is a pre-built graduation video that will show groups or individual seniors in caps and gowns. The video will be made in collaboration with a local producer, Drown said.

The next two options are a drive-in theater style, he said, where students and those in attendance can gather and, from their vehicles, watch the presentation of the graduation video and the rest of the ceremony. In the least restricted option, people will be seated in chairs rather than cars, still spaced out six feet apart.

Drown said Johnny Shockey offered his ranch — the venue that hosts Under the Big Sky — to the district free of charge.

In either of the last two cases, Drown said there will be a reduced guest number for the ceremony.

“This has been heavy on all our minds, we want a quality experience to honor our seniors and the class of 2020. We know the guidelines and parameters are going to guide us from the county level, but we do have plans to try to adapt to that we’re starting now,” he said. “We just want to make it clear that we’re not going to be able to accommodate all of the people, nor people that travel from out of state and will be under a quarantine status when they arrive.”

During the meeting, the board also unanimously passed a declaration of unforeseen emergency and a memorandum of agreement with the Whitefish Education Association to push 16 tenured teacher evaluations that were not yet completed to the next school year.

The governor on March 15 announced the closure of all public K-12 schools in an attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The closure has been extended for two-week periods through all of April.

Following spring break in March, Whitefish students and teachers have gone to remote learning with grades three through 12 using online tools for lessons, and teachers preparing packets with lessons for younger grades.