Whitefish Schools to phase in full-time onsite learning beginning next week

Reporter | November 12, 2020 11:40 AM

The Whitefish School District took a cautious approach to reopening schools this fall amidst the COVID-19 pandemic by enacting a hybrid in-person and remote learning model, but by the end of November all grades are set to move to four day per week onsite instruction.

The Whitefish School Board Tuesday voted 6-1 in favor of adopting a new “hybrid plus” model that is being phased in over the next few weeks beginning Monday, Nov. 16. The hybrid plus structure will have students attending class in-person four days a week, and Wednesdays will remain reserved for extra help and enrichment activities in small groups or one-on-one with teachers.

During the meeting the board approved an amended proposal, which will see all students in the district moving to the new learning model by the end of the month. Currently, students attend school in person two days per week and attend remotely two days per week.

All grades at Muldown Elementary School are expected to begin in-person learning four days per week beginning Monday, Nov. 16. The following week beginning on Nov. 23, fifth and sixth graders will begin the same schedule and finally seventh through 12th grades will begin the same in-person schedule on Monday, Nov. 30.

Superintendent Dave Means said the recommendation from the school district’s Covid Task Force team was to phase into more onsite learning slowly, beginning with just kindergarten through second grade. Prioritizing the return to onsite learning for the younger students first and slowly phasing in the rest of the grades was purposely thought out in the recommendation, he noted.

“We know that in elementary school we have the ability to cohort smaller class sizes,” Means said. “We know, based on the latest research, there’s less transmission amongst younger students. We know transmission is primarily occurring outside of schools. We also know the younger students are less independent, of course, and benefit from in-person instruction and early literacy skills.”

“We need to take this step-by-step in a cautious manner as we consider this approach,” he added.

However, after listening to public comment and about an hour of deliberation amongst board members, Trustee Darcy Schellinger moved to approve an accelerated timeline of implementation over three weeks and Trustee Betsy Kohnstamm seconded.

Trustee Ruth Harrison, who explained that she supported the idea of moving to increased on-site instruction but would have liked to see a more cautious time frame, was the only board member to vote against the motion.

“I’m not against going back (to more onsite learning), but it's just that accelerated time frame,” she said after the vote.

Declining mental health and academic performance amongst students were two major concerns brought up by several board members and community members during the meeting.

“Where kids learn best is in school and that’s where they want to be, I think that’s something we’re all really seeing right now,” Schellinger said prior to proposing the amendment. “It’s really frustrating on so many levels to think that these kids are suffering and going through this and parents are struggling constantly.”

Another reason for beginning more on-site instruction, some board members noted, is the impact remote instruction is having on parents.

“When we’re thinking about what’s best for kids, we have to think about what’s best for parents,” Board Chair Katie Clarke said. “What’s so hard is that schools are operating at 50%, but the world that parents are in is at 100%, it doesn’t line up.”

District administrators noted that the task force suggested a slow phasing into increased in-person instruction to avoid sending all the students back at once, which could have a higher potential to spike cases.

Means said the task force does consider the impact to students and parents when making its recommendations for the school schedule.

“We don’t just look at the data, we look at the research and the guidance, we definitely consider the mental health issues and the academic impacts on students, we weigh that significantly in making this recommendation,” he said. “So I think it's unfair to say that the task force did not consider that.”

Prior to the vote, Means said Whitefish schools are actually seeing a decrease in positive COVID-19 cases among students despite Flathead County’s case numbers continuing to rise.

According to COVID-19 information on the district’s website, positive cases amongst the schools’ students and staff spiked in early October with 18 cases in the district during the week of Oct. 5-9. Last week Muldown had four positive cases and the middle school had three, meaning the averaged totals of COVID-19 cases per week in the district is showing a downward trend.

“We have high numbers in our county, but we’ve had some internal numbers that have shown some decreases within our district,” Means said. “Our number of positive cases is similar with other school districts in the valley that are in a full time, in-person model. When we look at that information and we see the same number of positive cases, we need to consider that while making decisions.”

The school board in mid-October had approved a move to transition to 100% onsite learning, but that was rescinded after COVID-19 cases spiked in the Flathead Valley.