GFPS board approves plans for closures; four substitute teachers laid off

The Great Falls Public Schools board of trustees voted unanimously to approve the district’s plan for continuing distance learning, providing meals and other services through April 10 under the governor’s closure order.

The plan will next be submitted to the governor’s office.

GFPS staff made the draft plan available for public review on its website immediately following the governor’s announcement he was ordering schools closed through April 10 to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

March 24 COVID-19 updates: School closures, dine-in restrictions extended to April 10; Catholic schools closed through May 4; election updates; county landfill changes; changes to GFPD operations, city animal shelter; GF Clinic now accepting homemade masks

The district solicited public comment on the plan to be incorporated into the presentation to the board during a 5:30 p.m. special meeting on March 25.

Superintendent Tom Moore said the district received 45 comments, though few were specifically on the proposed plan. The majority, he said, were general comments on the impact school closures were having on their families and many commended the district for their efforts to adapt.

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Moore said despite the district’s best efforts, distance learning and other services via phone, or online, “cannot fully replace face-to-face instruction.”

He said staff is monitoring feedback and adjusting to the degree that it is possible depending on unique circumstance.

Moore said student assessments are on hold until the district receives definitive feedback from the state. The State Board of Public Education is scheduled to conduct a conference call on March 26 to discuss assessments, Moore said.

Moore told The Electric that the ACT has been waived, but local assessments haven’t been waived, so the district is working on plans to measure proficiency.

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He said that once students are back in classrooms, teachers will have to evaluate to see where students are and remediation may be necessary. He said there are already programs in place for summer programs and credit recovery for students not making progress.

Moore said that under the governor’s directives, the weeks of school closures would not extend the school year and the district would get reimbursements as usual for transportation, meals and funding based on student enrollment counts.

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Moore said federal regulations are dependent on testing, so the district is waiting to hear from the U.S. Department of Education on federal waivers.

Moore said the district already has plans in place under district policies to determine proficiency so that the district can award credit. He told The Electric they’re looking at giving pass-fail grades so that the closures don’t affect student grade point averages.

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

Moore said that counselors are focusing on seniors and teachers generally have a sense of where students stand in terms of proficiency, to help ensure they stay on track for graduation despite the disruption in their final year of high school.

As far as graduation ceremonies, he said he doesn’t want to do virtual graduations, but everything depends on how the pandemic plays out and orders from the governor related to school closures.

“At this point, it’s wait and see,” Moore said.

Dale Lambert, director of student services, said they’re working on getting computers out to some secondary students with disabilities and are continuing to work with students with behavioral issues.

Their frustration, Lambert told the board, is that they know computer based instruction isn’t successful for students with disabilities.

“We need the face-to-face instruction,” he said.

Kim Skornogoski, board member, asked about the district’s ability to expand the number of sites for childcare and expand the service for the community.

Moore said that the Cascade City-County Health Department is closely monitoring the situation and that the governor’s mandate was to close schools and disperse large groups of people, so bringing students back in larger numbers is a concern.

“There’s a tremendous amount of concern,” from parents and childcare providers to expanding the service to more families in need, Moore said.

For now, CCHD is recommending against expanding childcare service and they don’t have staffing available, Moore said.

“I know that this is an inconvenience for a whole lot of people,” Moore said.

Moore said some parents and students haven’t picked up their instructional packets or responded to calls from the district. Teachers attempted to deliver packets to students homes, but are also trying to avoid in-person contact to prevent spreading the virus.

Moore said the district is doing its best to track down students and make sure they’re connecting with educational resources while schools are closed.

“We realize this is not an ideal situation. This is not a way that any of us would have chosen to educate our children,” said Jason Brantley, school board member. “We haven’t even begun to see the peak of the crisis…wise move to continue to educate this way to minimize the risk.”

Skornogoski said the situation isn’t ideal, but “the teachers are teaching us as parents how to do this. They are doing whatever they can to explain to us how we can better teach our children.”

Heather Hoyer, secondary assistant superintendent, told The Electric that teachers are continuing to post online and when students need to turn in hard copies of homework to dropboxes at their schools, the district is isolating those papers for seven days since they’re being told the virus can live on surfaces for several days. Then teachers are getting the homework, grading it and communicating with students.

Hoyer said that for elementary students, teachers are planning another packet pick-up day for students who opt not to do online instruction. The details for packet pick-up will be sent to parents and shared on the district’s online sources.

Following the special meeting, the board convened an emergency meeting and unanimously voted to layoff full-time substitute teachers who aren’t currently filling in for permanent teachers on a leave of absence.

The move will impact four employees, according to Kerry Dattilo, human resources director.

Dattilo said she spoke to two of them on Wednesday who understood the situation and expressed willingness to get back to work as soon as circumstances allowed.