GFPS discusses COVID cases, GF High closure, network outage

Great Falls Public Schools said Sept. 14 that staff are working to complete cleaning of Great Falls High School so that students can return to classrooms on Wednesday.

On Sept. 13, GFPS officials said that additional COVID-19 cases had been identified at Great Falls High and decided to close the school Monday and Tuesday to allow for cleaning and contact tracing.

GF High closed Monday and Tuesday for cleaning due to new COVID-19 cases

On Monday, district and county health officials said there are 10 students who have tested positive and one staff member at the high school. In relation to those cases, there are less than 200, but “a significant number of individuals who are currently quarantined,” Superintendent Tom Moore said.

The new cases at the high school brings the total COVID-19 cases district wide to 14 since there’s one case each at Whittier Elementary, East Middle and Paris Gibson Education Center.

The Cascade County total is now 447, with 189 active cases.

On Sept. 14, the Cascade County City-County Health Department said there were four new cases: three women in their 30s and one woman in her 70s.

Over the weekend, the county added 23 cases, some associated with the jail outbreak, some with GFPS, others were close contacts or acquired through community spread.

The weekend’s new cases were:
  • 2 males under 20
  • 1 female under 20
  • 1 female in her 20s
  • 5 males in their 20s
  • 4 females in their 30s
  • 4 males in their 30s
  • 1 female in her 40s
  • 1 male in his 40s
  • 2 females in their 50s
  • 2 males in their 60s

Last week, when there were six confirmed cases associated with the district, Trisha Gardner, county health officer, said those cases had 70-75 associated contacts that were being quarantined.

Cascade County adds 30 new COVID-19 cases Sept. 11

Gardner said some of those who were quarantined in the early batch of cases in the district would be released from their 14-day quarantine on Sept. 17.

GFPS has two more COVID-19 cases; City has had three confirmed cases

Staff largely returned to the building Monday morning, Moore said.

Moore said that the Great Falls High School students were temporarily participating in a distance learning model that is different than the remote learning platform being used by the roughly 1,500 students who opted out of in-person instruction before the school year started.

He said that during the first week of school, teachers and students discussed what they’d do in the event of temporary or immediate closures such as this one, including taking their books home, knowing where to look for information and being prepared to do distance learning.

It’s “not idea,” Moore said, but as long as they can continue instruction, whether in the classroom or remotely, it can count toward the required contact hours, under state law, and that an emergency declaration remains in force, so they won’t have to make these hours up at the end of the year.

Moore said that district officials at the secondary level met Monday to discuss the options for expanding capacity for the remote learning program if more families elect to leave in-person instruction out of fear of COVID or to avoid the disruption of temporary closures.

Two COVID-19 cases confirmed at GF High

He said they had cut off enrollment in the remote program in August in order to staff the program since they need a certain number of teachers per students and those teachers need additional training. Moore said the district has hired additional teachers to help staff classrooms and the remote program, but they still don’t have the staff level to significantly increase remote learning while continuing in-person instruction.

Assistant Superintendent Heather Hoyer said during the Sept. 14 school board meeting that there are about 40 students on the remote learning waiting list.

Hoyer said that one remote teacher has 190 students assigned to her currently, which is more than the typical high school teacher in classrooms.

Brent Cutler, GFPS assistant director of buildings and grounds, said that his staff has been cleaning and disinfecting since Friday afternoon. He said that when positive cases are identified, they go through those classrooms and areas with filtered fans for about 12 air exchanges per hour, then ultraviolent lights, then cleaning desks and high touch surfaces, then disinfecting. Cutler said that it takes about 2.5 hours per room to thoroughly sanitize those areas.

Cutler said that teachers are helping daily by cleaning desks in their classrooms and that his staff is disinfecting daily.

More COVID-19 cases confirmed in county jail; judge has concerns over COVID in jail; Sheriff details some precautions

Moore said that these kinds of interruptions were anticipated and that he can’t give a definitive number of how many cases would prompt school closures or larger district wide closures. Moore and Gardner said it would depend on the number of cases and their associated contacts, as well as cleaning requirements and the time it takes to contact trace.

Moore and other district officials also gave an update on the network outage during a Sept. 14 press conference.

The district was the victim of a ransomware attack that forced the district to shut down most of its systems last week in an effort to contain the attack. GFPS was one of several nationwide that was impacted by ransomware attacks over Labor Day weekend nationwide.

Moore said that on the advice of investigators and forensic specialists, they can’t say yet where the attack came from or what the attackers wanted to release the network.

Moore said that federal and state law enforcement is investigating and private consultants from the district’s insurance company are assisting with determining the cause and extent of the attack and how to safely restore the network.

The attack is “pretty catastrophic for us,” Moore said.

Tom Hering, district IT director, said that the district has taken precautions with firewalls, antivirus systems, email security and other measures to prevent such attacks, but the attack was a new variant that had just been developed over Labor Day weekend.

He said that no prevention measures are foolproof and that often, cyber attackers are ahead of any of those measures.

Hering said that their email system typically sees 15,000 attempts per day to break through their firewalls.

Hering said that last week, the district shut down the entire system, but as of Friday had started bringing some network systems back up in coordination with their forensic specialists. He said that most Cloud based systems were still functioning.