Bullock releases phased plan for opening schools

by Daniel McKay
Whitefish Pilot | July 7, 2020 1:11 PM

Hoping to set in place guidelines for school districts in the fall, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Lieutenant Gov. Mike Cooney on Thursday released the state’s Plan for Reopening Safe and Healthy Schools.

The plan is a set of guidelines and available resources for school districts as they spend the summer planning on how best to reopen for the fall, which they noted as a priority.

“For many children, school is the best place to be. In a time of endless unknowns and constant flux, schools can provide structure and familiarity, and we know that what’s going on in the world can cause anxiety among students. Schools can and often do serve as an effective grounding tool,” Cooney said. “With Governor Bullock’s authority to close schools during this emergency, we believed it was important for our office to put out guidance, reviewed by public health experts, and ensure that schools have the tools they need to reopen as safely as possible this fall.”

The plan calls for a phased reopening that mirrors the current phase of the state’s own plan. In phase one, the stay-at-home order is lifted to allow for a gradual re-opening while minimizing the spread of the virus through social distancing and building safety protocols. Schools can re-open for in-person instruction depending on their community’s circumstances, and remote learning and meals should still provided for students.

In phase two, districts will open and continue to adhere to strict social distancing and building safety protocols, but limitations around large gathering group numbers will stay in place.

In phase three, most restrictions are eased off, but social distancing and group size limits are encouraged. The phase will facilitate a return to a “new normal,” the plan says, but it’s important to continue to monitor public health indicators and adjust course as needed.

“Some of the basic considerations for schools include accommodations for students who will engage in remote learning, and accommodations for teachers, students and staff in at-risk groups,” Cooney said. “Schools should consider occupancy limits that allow for social distancing, rules for traffic flow and congregational spaces, and sanitation procedures. Additionally, schools should have a procedure for monitoring students and staff for symptoms and history of exposure, produce guidelines on wearing masks and in relation to quarantine if needed, and expectations on educating and posting information on how to mitigate exposure and spread.”

Each phase of the plan comes with bullet point priorities and linked resources for districts as they set their own plan.

Just before Bullock’s announcement, the Montana Office of Public Instruction announced its own supportive guidelines for reopening schools, which comes out of the recommendations of two task forces that worked with the Montana School Safety Advisory Committee to develop the plan.

“Thank you to the Reopening Montana Schools task forces for your dedicated service to ensuring that our schools can safely open this fall,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen said in a prepared release. “Students, parents, and educators went above and beyond to continue education during the COVID-19 outbreak this spring. We know that this fall school year will be unique. This collaborative guidance will elevate learning to support our Montana students however and wherever they learn.”

The plan is another set of suggestions and priority guidelines for districts, and much of the suggestions overlap with the Governor’s Office’s recommendations.

The OPI plan can be found at opi.mt.gov.

The announcement of Bullock’s plan coincided with his call for Montanans to “mask up” as a preventative measure against spreading the virus to others.

“When we mask up as a critical component to combating this virus, we can also ensure that our kids will be able to return to our classrooms in the fall. I think every Montanan can agree, especially the parents that had to go the extra mile with the kids at home this spring, that we want our students back in the classroom,” he said. “It’s more important than just the parents and teachers and faculty. We really do worry about the public health impacts of COVID to our schools.”

As of press time, Montana has seen a recent spike that brings the total number of cases to 1,327 with 588 active cases.

Flathead County has 64 total confirmed cases.

The state is still one of the lowest in total cases and per capita cases, but Bullock stressed that Montanans still need to be vigilant.

“I say this not to de-emphasize the seriousness of new cases that we’ve seen over these past few weeks, but rather to underscore that we can still get a grasp on the virus in our state. And we can, if we do better as Montanans. It’s clear from analyzing recent new cases that Montanans have let their guard down,” he said.

“We have to act now to get our hands around this virus. Let’s make sure that a couple weeks from now we’re actually starting to see a decline in cases, or a holding of where we are.”

The governor’s plan is available at https://bit.ly/3f9y3kI.