GFPS preparing to return to school in August

This story was updated July 16 with the GFPS summary of the draft plan.

Great Falls Public Schools is preparing for a school reopening with face to face instruction in August.

“But things may change,” according to Superintendent Tom Moore.

During their July 15 meeting, the school board approved a draft plan for reopening schools for the 2020-2021 school year. The draft plan will be released publicly on July 16 after staff makes edits based on feedback from the July 15 meeting.

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The board authorized Moore and GFPS staff to continue working on the plan to make necessary adjustments and then bring the plan back to the board during their Aug. 10 meeting for final approval.

The summary of the draft plan is posted here.

Moore and other district staff are meeting with labor unions Thursday morning to discuss accommodations and plans for teachers and staff to ensure they feel comfortable returning to the school environment.

Moore will do a Facebook live at 11 a.m. Thursday to discuss the draft plan.

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For now, the plan involves bringing students back to school Aug. 26, five days a week, but with modified schedules to group students in cohorts and limit interaction between the groups and student movement in the building.

Ruth Uecker, assistant superintendent for K-6, said that they looked at options for half days or alternating days, but “if we can open the doors, we want these kids here five days a week.”

The district is also offering students and parents the opportunity to opt out of in-person instruction and choose a remote learning option.

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The district is sending out forms for families to state their intent regarding remote learning. Those responses are due by July 27 and those who declare their intent to use remote learning will be contacted by a school administrator or counselor to work through the details for individual students.

The district is also working on surveying parents regarding bus ridership since they’ll have to limit the number of students on buses and space them out. Buses will have assigned seating and adjustments will be made to the routes to move more students but with less per bus, according to Brian Patrick, GFPS director of business operations.

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Uecker said that in elementary schools, students will receive individually packaged breakfasts in their classrooms and then move to the cafeteria in their groups for lunch with distancing.

She said district staff will develop routines and procedures that they’ll teach and reteach students, who are used to learning new routines each year.

“Our kids will catch on,” she said.

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They’ll go through the lines to get food, but won’t be picking up anything from shared trays or utensil containers, those will be individually handed out, she said.

From lunch, they’ll progress in their groups to the playground for recess, where they’ll have individual bags of balls, jump ropes or other equipment to reduce sharing, Uecker said.

Heather Hoyer, assistant superintendent for secondary, said lunch times at the high schools will be extended to give them more time to spread out. They can still bring their own lunch or leave campus to get lunch, if the schools aren’t required to take temperatures every time they return to campus.

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Reopening plans also include a mask policy for employees and visitors, as well as students. The district implemented a mask requirement for the district offices effective July 6.

The district will provide masks for employees and students who don’t have them.

Uecker said that masks will be required for students when distancing can’t be maintained, such as in hallways, cafeterias, small groups and transition times.

Lance Boyd, GFPS director of student services, said the district has acquired a variety of mask types to work with students with special needs to make accommodations.

Since Gov. Steve Bullock issued a mask directive on July 15, the district has some recourse in enforcing mask rules.

The governor’s office said the directive doesn’t specifically identify schools but if the district requires them, someone who refuses to comply can be trespassed, according to Cascade County Attorney Josh Racki.

Criminal trespass charges can carry fines and jail time, but local officials said the goal is to educate and encourage compliance.

Racki, the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office, Great Falls Police Department and Cascade County City-County Health Department are meeting Thursday morning to discuss enforcement plans countywide for the governor’s mask directive.

The district is working to maintain electives, though some won’t be available remotely.

Dusty Molyneaux, music and arts supervisor, said he’s not a fan of block schedules, which will be implemented at the high school level, but it’s the only way to keep those electives under these conditions.

“If we don’t have those classes available, these programs are going to disappear,” Molyneaux said. “It’s not ideal, but it will work.”

He said there will be less focus on performing this year since they won’t be able to have the traditional concerts.