GFPS considering temporary closure due to COVID-19 quarantines, effort to slow spread

Great Falls Public Schools officials are considering closing schools districtwide beginning Nov. 16, returning Nov. 30 in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19 and also allow for staff to return from quarantines.

Superintendent Tom Moore told the GFPS Board of Trustees during their Nov. 9 meeting that it’s what district administration are considering based on the rising number of cases within the district.

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He said for the seven days out of school other than the Thanksgiving break, the district would go to remote learning districtwide. Moore said officials are hoping students and employees will quarantine, wear masks and distance during the closure, in order to help slow the spread.

During the meeting, Moore said there were 86 active cases. By 9 p.m. the district update the number to 87.

Those active cases include students and employees. Moore said there are 1,188 people either in isolation or quarantine related to those positive cases.

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“The numbers are the highest that they’ve been and they’re rising,” Moore said.

The number of active cases was 21 on Oct. 15 and has increased continually since. He said that it was now a situation in which staff were spreading it amongst themselves.

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As of Nov. 9, there were 178 staff absences related to COVID-19, Moore said, and the substitute fill rate was 43 percent.

“This is probably the most concerning,” Moore said. “That’s posing a problem and a lot of stress.”

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Moore said he met with representatives from local healthcare providers and the Cascade County City-County Health Department on Nov. 9 with what he’s dubbed the emergency school closure task force and that he’s convening the cabinet and other school officials on Nov. 10 to work through the logistics of an extended Thanksgiving holiday closure.

The idea of closing Nov. 16 would give the district time to prepare for the closure, as well as parents and families who need to make adjustments.

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Moore said that he’s been asked for months what the tipping point would be for school closures and it’s been contact tracing efforts, cleaning and staffing for the recent isolated closures.

At C.M. Russell High earlier this month, Moore said officials were notified of a high number of positive cases late in the day and needed to clean 22 rooms.

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“There’s no way that we can get those rooms sanitized over night,” Moore said. Contact tracing also took more that overnight, he said.

Whittier Elementary reopened Nov. 9 after a weeklong closure due to a high percentage of staff in quarantine, Moore said.

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“We just can’t adequately staff our programs,” Moore said. “I don’t know if this is going to work or not for sure.”

He said that once schools would reopen Nov. 30, there would be three weeks to the Christmas holiday and if this closure doesn’t slow the spread, they’ll have to look at other options for the new year.

The decision for the closure has not yet been finalized, but school board members were supportive of the measure in an effort to slow the spread and account for staffing issues.

But, board members said that the students, families, employees and the community need to do their part in following the health guidelines to help slow the spread so that schools can remain open.

The decision to close temporarily does not require a vote by the board since their emergency declaration is currently in place.

“We’ve been anticipating an extended closure” and have been telling staff to be prepared for that, but will give staff and the community the remainder of this week time to prepare.