Whitefish Schools delay return to full onsite instruction

by WHITNEY ENGLAND
Reporter | October 13, 2020 12:55 PM

The Whitefish School District on Saturday rescinded a decision made just two days before to begin transitioning to 100% onsite learning after COVID-19 cases spiked late in the week across the Flathead Valley and in all Whitefish schools.

During a nearly two-hour special meeting Thursday, the Whitefish School Board had voted to begin 100% in person instruction for kindergarten through sixth grade and a “hybrid plus” model for seventh through 12th grade. The change had been set to take place Monday after all grades have been operating with a hybrid remote and in-person schedule since the start of the school year.

However, the Whitefish School District’s Covid Task Force team and the Covid Incident Command team convened Saturday after a significant increase in COVID-19 cases valleywide. There was an uptick in positive cases in all three Whitefish schools, and in the valley, since Thursday which led the groups to decide on delaying the transition out of the hybrid model, according to the school district.

In a letter sent out to parents and staff Saturday evening, Whitefish Superintendent Dave Means explained that there were 16 newly confirmed cases within Whitefish Schools — including nine at the middle school which went to remote learning only this week — and hundreds of new cases in Flathead County from Thursday through Saturday.

“Based on the recommendations of the Covid Incident Command team and the Covid Task Force, administration has decided… to delay the return to 100% K-6 instruction and the hybrid plus in grades 7-12 given the rapid and dramatic increases in cases in our valley and schools since Thursday,” Means said.

He said the district plans to continue with the hybrid model until cases in the valley and in Whitefish Schools decrease over a period of time. Whitefish Schools may need to transition to remote only at any time due to staffing challenges and number of students directly impacted by COVID, he also noted.

The district says it will continue to monitor the situation and expects to send further information to staff and families on Thursday, Oct. 15.

According to Means, additional factors were considered while making the difficult decision. The district had a total of 13 positive COVID-19 cases within its schools prior to Thursday, then recorded a dramatic increase of 16 new cases just on Thursday and Friday alone.

In addition, both of the district’s local health provider consultants now recommend staying in the hybrid model based on new countywide increase in cases and also the hybrid model proved over the last few days to significantly reduce the amount of students needing to quarantine.

“The safety of students, staff, families is our priority in making this decision and it is evident that administration will need to be able to make these decisions very quickly in this rapidly changing environment,” Means said. “We are in a rapidly changing environment and we will need to be prepared for changes that can occur based on new information we are receiving.”

Prior to the change, more than 100 people logged into the virtual school board meeting Thursday evening. Several, including many teachers, voiced concerns over returning to full in-person instruction when active cases are rising so quickly — there are currently over 1,000 active cases of the virus in the county.

At the meeting Means explained school administrators’ reasoning for the recommendation to return to 100% onsite instruction for the younger grades and up to four days in person for the older grades was due to believing the students are safer in school.

“Transmission appears to be happening within the community,” Means said. “This is consistent with observations from county health, Kalispell Regional Healthcare, KRMC’s Covid Incident Command Team, and other schools within the valley. Those same groups and two of the consultants we’ve conversed with agree that schools may be the safest option right now because transmission seems to be occurring within the community.”

He also said the number of cases within Whitefish School District are similar to other schools of similar size in the county that are at 100% onsite instruction. In addition, data and knowledge of the spread of COVID-19 is constantly changing; there were also differing opinions among medical providers they consult with, including a provider at Glacier Medical that recommended they stay in the hybrid model.

The plan, as approved by the school board, had been to begin 100% in person instruction for kindergarten through sixth grade and a “hybrid plus” model for seventh through 12th grade. The later model was set to include four days of onsite learning with Wednesdays reserved as a time for students to schedule extra support with teachers and staff to perform deep cleaning — dubbed “Opportunity Wednesdays” by the district.

The Whitefish administration recommended to the board that kindergarten through eighth grade return to campus full time, but after listening to public comment the board amended the original recommendation to include seventh and eighth grade in the hybrid-plus model.