GFPS officials discuss COVID-19 response; ransomware attack recovery
For the time being, Great Falls Public Schools is “going to stay the course” with in-person instruction, while continuing to explore options for expanded remote learning, individual or intermittent school closures if necessary and continuing to prepare for the possibility of another COVID-19 driven shutdown.
Superintendent Tom Moore told the school board during their Sept. 28 meeting that the district was surveying high school teachers about options and continuing to monitor the situation within the district.
Moore said that in September there were instances of the district and Cascade County City-County Health Department being overwhelmed with an influx of cases that prompted the two-day closure of Great Falls High School and has slowed the delivery of quarantine letters to those who were identified through contact tracing, though they were called to be notified of exposure and instructions to quarantine for 14-days, which is guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention being followed by CCHD.
As of Sept. 28, Cascade County hit 700 total COVID-19 cases, of which 261 are active.
On Monday, CCHD said there were seven new cases associated with GFPS. On Sept. 25, there were three new cases and on Sept. 24 there were five new cases linked to GFPS. As of Sept. 22, there were 18 active cases associated with GFPS, according to CCHD.
The state is releasing updates on cases in public schools on Wednesdays.
Moore said that to help speed contact tracing and issuing those quarantine letters among cases identified within GFPS, school staff are being trained by CCHD and an agreement between the agencies is being developed to authorize those staff members to conduct contact tracing for GFPS cases.
Any notification of a positive case will still come from health care providers and CCHD directly, Moore said.
Moore said that the district is working on communication internally and with the community about positive COVID-19 cases, contact tracing and quarantine.
The district is relying on CCHD to share the general number of cases associated with the district in their regular updates and the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services with their weekly updates on cases in public schools, by county and school.
Moore told The Electric that the district will gather information from school nurses of who has been contacted that day in contact tracing processes and a secretary in the student services office will send out the quarantine letters.
He said that some people are arguing with or yelling at staff when they make the notification calls of exposure and quarantine orders. Moore said it’s not the district’s requirement, but one that is being issued by the county health officer. Health orders by the county health order are legally enforceable.
As of last week, about 200 people at GFH were in quarantine, but Moore said most of them are back this week. At C.M. Russell High, there were about 130 in quarantine he said and a few more cases were confirmed there.
Kim Skornogoski, school board member, said that “anything that we can do to be more open and transparent about where and when COVID cases are happening in our schools, I think will be both appreciated by our parents and help calm concerns.”
She said that she understands some decisions are being made at the state level, but “if we have an opportunity to provide more information that is accurate, I would encourage us to do that. It’s better to provide more information than not enough.”
Moore and Tom Hering, IT director, also provided an update on the Sept. 7 ransomware attack that the district is still recovering from.
Hering said that the district is now four weeks into the attack and recovery and expects it will take several more weeks. He said that the district has about 90 percent back up, including critical systems that are again operational.
He said that everyone was transitioned to a new email platform that the district had been planning for in the future, but accelerated that plan due to the attack.
“We’re healing up slowly but we’re getting there,” Hering said.
Moore told The Electric that their attorneys were continuing to advise that he not disclose the details of the ransom that the hackers requested, but that the insurance company handled negotiations and any ransom payment so that the district was able to work on restoring systems.
Moore said that GFPS, like most other school districts and other entities responsible for protected data, has significant cyber insurance.
He told The Electric that at this point, there’s no indication that any data or information was lost or stolen.