GFPS board approves reopening plan

The Great Falls Public Schools board voted 5-2 during their Aug. 10 meeting to approve the district’s reopening plan for schools to return to face-to-face learning on Aug. 26.

Trustees Bill Bronson and Teresa Schreiner voted in opposition of the reopening plan saying they didn’t believe the community was ready to open schools with the current COVID-19 conditions.

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“I think we need to bring the danger down in Great Falls before we move forward with face-to-face,” Schreiner said. “This is the best collaborative plan that we could expect…but supporting it in respect to where our community is right now is putting us in danger of increasing risk.”

Bronson said that the COVID conditions were worse now than when schools were closed by Gov. Steve Bullock in March. At that time, there were five cases in the county.

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As of Aug. 10, there were 166 total cases, with 54 active cases and four deaths in Cascade County.

Bronson said in-person learning is better than remote learning, but was troubled with the significant increase in cases in areas where schools have reopened.

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“I think it’s just too early to go with a proposal like this,” he said. “I just don’t think its in the best interest of our students, our teachers or our community.”

Superintendent Tom Moore, Cascade County Health Officer Trisha Gardner and several board members referenced a June report from the American Academy of Pediatricians advocating for the return to school since the benefits of in-person learning outweighed the risks.

The AAP and the Children’s Hospital Association released data that found more than 97,000 U.S. children tested positive for COVID-19 during the last two weeks of July, according to a Washington Post report.

According to the data, 530 people between the ages of 0-19 had tested positive in Montana as of Aug. 6.

The district has given parents the option to choose remote learning if they aren’t comfortable with returning to schools in person.

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During the Aug. 10 meeting, officials said that 1,214 students are requesting remote learning so far, or about 8.5 percent of GFPS students.

Trustees Gordon Johnson and Mark Finnicum said that number demonstrated a confidence in the district and it’s planned health and safety protocols as well as a willingness to return to the classroom.

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During the meeting, Gardner, county health officer, said that they expect some increase in cases as schools reopen, and Moore said that “we have elected to do what we can in a face to face environment” to try to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Moore said that if students exhibit symptoms at school, there are isolation areas identified in each school and if students test positive or has to quarantine due to exposure with a positive case, that it would be treated like a short-term absence and teachers would provide classwork and the students would use a remote learning environment, different than that used by those who choose remote learning for the entire school year.

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Gardner said that there’s not a black and white answer to what would prompt school closures and it would be based on multiple factors, such as the overall cases in the county, rate of spread, how it’s spreading, the capacity of the local healthcare system, availability of personal protective equipment and whether positive cases in the school district was a cluster outbreak versus a handful of isolated cases.

One of the more contentious aspects of the return to school, Moore said, has been masks and whether it’s doable for students to wear them all day.

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Moore said there’s some preliminary discussion of establishing parameters for ‘mask breaks’ but there’s some concern from faculty with that idea.

The district is also considering options for sports, which include the status quo, eliminating non-conference games for a shorter season or altering the sport seasons.

Mike Henneberg, GFPS athletic director, said it gets sticky since some counties are interpreting health guidelines from the state differently.

The third option would move football and volleyball to a spring season from Feb. 15 to May 1.

Golf, cross country and soccer would remain fall sports from Aug. 17 to Oct. 17.

Winter sports would be wrestling, basketball and swimming.

Tennis, softball and track would run May 3 through June 26, which is after the school year ends.

That third option would require approval by the Montana High School Association board and a fairly significant alteration to the scheduled, Henneberg said.

“There’s going to be a number of challenges ahead,” Henneberg said.

The district will offer feedback to MHSA, but no decision has been finalized.