Montana Gov. Steve Bullock announced last month that school districts had the option to reopen school buildings for in-person learning. While most schools are staying closed and finishing the rest of the school year with online learning, some smaller districts are ready for students in traditional classrooms again.
Montana remains one of the states with the lowest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases. According to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, Montana has a total of 16 deaths from the virus, as of this writing.
It is currently the only state that has reopened public in-person education for the 2019-2020 school year. According to Education Week, Wyoming is scheduled to open on May 15.
Donell Rosenthal, director of pupil transportation for the Montana Department of Education, told School Transportation News that as of Thursday it is up to the local school boards on whether they want to re-open or continue with remote learning.
She noted that school districts have not been transporting students since the closures went into effect on March 15. However, schools were operating their buses to help with the delivery of meals and instructional supplies to students.
While many school boards have decided to continue with remote learning through the end of the school year, which usually ends around early June in Montana, some have reopened for a select group of students or, as one small local school district did, for the entire enrollment. Schools are a part of phase one of the state’s larger reopening plan.
Willow Creek Elementary in Three Forks, located about 70 miles north of Helena, was reportedly one of those schools that reopened. Willow Creek Schools surveyed parents, who reportedly supported the reopening. The class sizes at Willow Creek are normally around 10 students, which makes it easier to follow social distancing guidelines.
School Transportation News reached out to the district for more information but had yet to hear back as of this writing.
Meanwhile, Troy Public Schools, located near the border with Idaho, opened as a study hall this week and allowed some elementary students to attend school for its afterschool activity program. Keith Haggerty, the maintenance and transportation director for the district, said no school bus transportation is being provided. Instead, it is up to the parents to get the students to school.
Haggerty noted that he has no students who require special transportation services as part of their individualized education programs.
He said the district has taken proactive measures and was essentially ahead of the game when COVID-19 hit. He noted that expectations and guidelines remain unknown at this time, and he is planning for the “what if” scenarios.
Haggerty said when the coronavirus outbreak started, the district increased its cleaning routine of school buses and purchased enough supplies to make 50 gallons of hand sanitizer as well as purchased a disinfecting chemical that was certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to kill the virus.
He said immediately when schools were still in session, he changed department practices to require school bus drivers to spray and disinfect their buses after every morning and afternoon route. The district enacted similar procedures in school buildings and classrooms.
“We closed rooms down that weren’t going to be used, and we started condensing and disinfecting rooms, shut them down and locked them down. We did the same with the buses if they weren’t going to be used anymore,” Haggerty explained. “And we had everything set, ready for reopening at the drop of the hat also, if we were to go that route.”
Haggerty said currently with the open study halls, students can make an appointment with teachers and come into to get help with online learning. The students are condensed into one building and only a select number of classrooms are allowed to be used.
He said the study halls being used now are only allowed in certain rooms, and the students can only walk in certain areas, which helps with the district’s cleaning routine. Haggerty noted that deep cleaning follows all study hall sessions.
He said he is currently waiting for guidelines before he makes any changes to his buses or his staff safety standards, but he said installing protective plexiglass between the driver compartment and the students or requiring drivers to wear personal protective equipment wouldn’t take long to implement, as he has nine buses in his fleet and runs five routes during the school year. He said he hasn’t yet looked at what that might cost, because he is waiting for official decisions to be made.
“We have seen so many things when something first happens, everybody kind of jumps and says you need to do all this, but by the time it’s over with, you didn’t need to do it,” Haggerty explained. “So, we are just kind of waiting to see once we get a little closer.”
He noted two members of his staff have already made enough masks, with their personal swing machines, for all school staff.
“We already have that setup, if our drivers need face masks if we are going to go that route,” Haggerty said. “And like I said, the hand sanitizer, the gloves, we have had all that stuff, from day one, and we have been using it. We had handwashing stations that I ordered from our local port-a-potty service. We had those set up while we were still in school. So, before we were shut down, we were set up with everything.”
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For the 2020-2021 school year, the district considered dividing its learning days into two groups of students: those who ride the bus, and those who don’t, to help with social distancing guidelines. However, he noted that for most of his student stops, he is only picking up one family at a time, so social distancing at bus stops shouldn’t be a problem.
He said he is prepared to make adjustments to plans, however, with things changing constantly. The unknown of what the future holds puts him at standstill from making any set decisions at this time, he added.
“We haven’t had any new cases in our county for a while, and everybody is all recovered, so we are sitting and waiting,” Haggerty said. “We know that could change; everybody knows that could change quickly.”
However, he added that he anticipates school will resume as “normal” in the fall, with some additional hand washing and hand sanitizer requirements.