GFPS declares emergency, attempting to get clarity from state regarding accreditation, assessment standards

The Great Falls Public Schools board of trustees held an emergency meeting on March 18 to declare an emergency, at the recommendation of the Montana School Boards Association, related to the governor’s order to close schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The board unanimously passed the declaration, parameters for which are outlined in state law and had notified the media and public of their meeting several hours in advance, including posting the meeting documents on their website.

March 15 COVID-19 updates: Gov. Steve Bullock directing public K-12 schools close through March 27 to prevent spread of COVID-19; GFPS closing, offering distance learning; Great Falls private schools closing; City of Great Falls canceling some public meetings

Superintendent Tom Moore said there’s a lack of guidance and clarity as to what the school closures mean for accreditation standards, assessments and funding.

Moore said the district, as well as other districts state wide, have applied for waivers and the state is asking for waivers from the federal level.

GFPS cancels, postpones all after school activities through March 27 due to COVID-19

State law requires a certain number of instructional hours or school has to be made up, and Moore said it’s unclear what the impact of the COVID-19 related closures will have on those standards.

“We’re frustrated a little bit with state level leadership in trying to get clarity,” Moore told the school board, particularly in regards to whether these two weeks would have to be made up later.

March 18 COVID-19 updates: two more positive cases in Gallatin County; gun show canceled; OPI requests waivers; governor adapts unemployment, small business loans; Rec Center closing; updated GFPS meal pickup locations; take-out options; to-go art from Brush Crazy

In an interview with The Electric, Moore said that with the closure, there’s no way the district, or any other district in the state, can meet the instructional time requirement under state law.

The district already had two emergency closures this school year, one for a homicide investigation near Lincoln Elementary, and a district wide closure for a bomb threat.

The district had added five minutes per day for the rest of the year at Lincoln to make up for the lost time.

Moore told The Electric that there were also questions about proficiency and how that would be gauged related to state rules.

He said the district has various tools to test proficiency, but how it should be implemented and meet state regulations was unclear.

“How do we determine between now and the end of the year what the closure has had on proficiency,” he said.

Moore said the district is doing what it can to provide resources and support through online tools, such as tutoring or counseling through internet connections and other options.

“We know that parents aren’t going to be able to teach kids the same as their teachers,” Moore said, but what about students who don’t have internet or phone access at home and the parents have been unresponsive and haven’t picked up packets, he said.

“How do we reach out to those children?”

He said teachers were planning to deliver instructional packets to the elementary students at home who’s families hadn’t picked them up on Wednesday at their schools.

Funding is also a significant question, Moore said, since there’s a cost to providing education and the additional resources, but it’s unclear how districts will be reimbursed for those programs under federal and state rules since the buildings are closed for extended periods of time.

Staff is still working, many from home, though some cleaning crews and other employees are operating in the district facilities, particularly those hosting childcare programs during the COVID-10 closure.

There have also been meetings to determine how the closures work within the district’s collective bargaining agreements with various unions. Moore told the board that administrators and union representatives met the morning of March 18 to work through those issues.

During the meeting, school board members applauded GFPS administrators and staff for their adaptability and quick turnaround to continue learning opportunity for students through the closure. District staff had started planning for the potential of closure last week but got little notice when the governor sent out an executive order the evening of March 15 to close schools starting the following day for two weeks.