Parents, teachers support hybrid model for back to school

Reporter | August 26, 2020 1:00 AM

Whitefish School District parents and teachers gave a mostly positive review of the school district’s hybrid in-person and remote learning plan related to COVID-19 during a special school board meeting last week.

The school board officially approved the plan, which includes alternating schedules of classes divided into subgroups, ensures less students are on campus at a time, and the intention to have up to 100% capacity on campus five days a week following the transitional period ending on Sept. 25.

School begins on Aug. 26.

At one point there were nearly 80 people attending the virtual meeting. Comments from the public came from parents, teachers and staff members.

Numerous people said they support the hybrid schedule to begin the school year saying they would not feel safe sending their children back to school without the hybrid model.

“I appreciate that your plan recognizes the importance of masks, social distancing and cohorting; these are three mitigation strategies that have been recommended by the CDC,” Jessica Schwaderer said after noting her child attends a Whitefish school and her husband works in the district. “I know it is the safest way to start the year and it will help minimize outbreaks of COVID that might occur and cause us to go fully remote. If the hybrid schedule is not implemented in the reopening plan, I am not sure that I will feel safe sending my child to school at this point.”

Some parents also said they appreciate the cautious approach to begin the year and that easing students back into on-site schooling is a smart way to minimize COVID-19 outbreaks while also giving everyone time to work out the kinks upon returning to school.

Several teachers said they feel more comfortable returning to school with the hybrid format.

“I truly believe that if we take this time now upfront then we will be able to move forward sooner and more confidently…” Melinda Goldhirsch said.

Todd Spangler, a teacher at Whitefish High School, also spoke up in support of the district’s transitional reopening plan. He said it would be impossible to social distance with more than 50% of the students on campus at once and that enforcing mask wearing will be easier on staff with less students in the building at one time.

“I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen from our school district,” he said.

A handful of those who commented did express concern about the students’ immune systems weakening while being separated and also mental health issues associated with isolation and distance learning.

“I have a huge concern of what’s going to happen to our children’s immune system when we’re all in bubbles,” Kim Murray said.

As a healthcare provider, she said she sees the need for children to be around each other to keep up a healthy immune system and that she believes in the research around herd immunity making it important to have students back in school buildings full time.

Some expressed concerns about whether the stress on parents, students and staff caused by implementing the hybrid model was doing more harm than good.

Whitefish Superintendent Dave Means addressed some of these issues following the public comment.

“One of the things we recognize is this is stressful for everybody and I think we are doing the best we can to provide a transition into this that we hope will provide an opportunity to have more engagement with students, discussions about the stress related to this, equip them with tools, and address some of the social-emotional needs that have been brought up tonight. I think those are all critical components as we move forward,” Means said.

During public comment, Matt Smith asked a handful of questions examining whether the plan is actually necessary for the health of the community.

“What makes the Whitefish School District different from Kalispell, Columbia Falls, Bigfork, Somers, and Lakeside school districts?” he asked.

Most other school districts in the county are offering in-person instruction with the option for parents to select remote learning.

Means said the Whitefish district is taking a data-based approach to reopening school buildings. He reiterated from previous meetings that the district is consulting with healthcare professionals, looking at CDC guidance and examining research. He also pointed out that schools around both Missoula and Bozeman, which currently have fewer active cases than Flathead County, are also implementing a hybrid reopening plan.

“What makes Whitefish different? I think you heard a little bit of that tonight,” Means said. “We listen to the community, we are looking at indicators around us…

“I think it’s important to continue to emphasize that from when we proposed this plan, our goal is (still) the same… we want kids back in school and we want them to stay in school.”