GFPS watching COVID-19 situation as planned return to classrooms approaches

Students and teachers are scheduled to return to the classroom Nov. 30, but that could change.

Great Falls Public Schools Superintendent Tom Moore told school board members during their Nov. 23 meeting that officials were watching the COVID-19 numbers and that district administration are meeting Tuesday to discuss the situation and said he expected a determination on returning to in-person learning on Nov. 30 by Tuesday or Wednesday.

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Several board members said that the numbers were dropping, but they’d heard numerous concerns from teachers and staff regarding returning to classrooms and additional concerns that the numbers would increase again after Thanksgiving despite restrictions on gathering sizes and recommendations from health officials not to have holiday gatherings.

District officials did not provide any details regarding any potential changes to the plan to return to classrooms on Nov. 30 during Monday’s school board meeting.

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As of Nov. 23, Moore that there were 33 active cases associated with the district. That includes students and employees. He said that staff and employees are still reporting to supervisors regarding COVID-19 tests and whether they are in isolation or quarantine, but the numbers might be off for students since school nurses aren’t in as close of contact while they’re in remote learning. More said GFPS nurses are still monitoring those who were in isolation or quarantine before the district went remote on Nov. 16.

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Moore said that as of Nov. 23, there were a total of 420 staff and students in quarantine or isolation, down significantly from two weeks ago, when the district decided to go remote, when there were 1,188 in quarantine or isolation.

Based on district data, the COVID-19 numbers within the district are dropping, but with the holidays this week, that could change.

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There are 750 teachers in the district and on Nov. 9, nine percent of them, or 88, were out due to COVID-19, Moore said. On Nov. 16, that dropped to 9 percent or 69, then on Nov. 23, it was 3 percent or 23 and district staff are projecting that there would still be about 3 percent out.

For total staff, which is 1,481 people, the curve has been similar, Moore told the school board. On Nov. 9, 11 percent, or 163 people were out due to COVID-19. On Nov. 16, the number was 10 percent or 142 people, by Nov. 23, that had dropped to 6 percent or 85 and district staff projected it would be 4 percent or 54 people by Nov. 30.

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Moore said that so far this school year, officials have seen whenever there’s been an extended break, about 10 days after students and staff returned to school, there was an increase in COVID-19 cases and they’d anticipate something similar after Thanksgiving if they return Nov. 30.

“If it was to the magnitude that we’ve seen in the past, we may have to close individual schools or the district,” Moore said as has been the case throughout the fall if they face more staffing shortages or outbreaks that require extensive cleaning and contact tracing.

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Trustee Mark Finnicum said he’d heard concerns from parents who are struggling to balance remote learning with their jobs, but also hearing concerns from staff about returning to classrooms in a healthy manner.

Trustee Teresa Schreiner said that she’d had calls from teachers over the last few days.

“COVID is a beast that we can’t reason with and they’re just very concerned for their lives,” Schreiner said of the feedback she’d received. “They’re very afraid.”

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She said she appreciates the district’s data on COVID-19 numbers, but has heard of people still holding gatherings in the community despite the restrictions and is concerned about the impact of that coming back from the Thanksgiving holiday.

Trustee Kim Skornogoski said, “this is an impossible decision. When schools close, it sends a message to the community that this is a serious issue and hopefully it inspires changes in the public’s behavior.”

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She said that the online learning platform had improved, but she was concerned about the impact that losing potentially a year of in-person learning would have on student achievement.

Skornogoski said she’d heard from teachers that she doesn’t think having them teach both in person and online was doable.

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Trustee Bill Bronson said that he’d spoken to first responders and members of the medical community and that their concerns needed to be factored into any decision the district makes about returning to classrooms.

The numbers are decreasing within the district, but that there could be longterm effects for those who have caught COVID-19 and recovered that are not yet known.

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He said he’s concerned about returning on Nov. 30 and then seeing a spike in cases about two weeks later due to holiday gatherings.

“I have some very genuine concerns about reopening next Monday,” he said, regardless of the precautions the district has taken within schools to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

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He echoed Skornogoski’s concerns about student achievement if students can’t learn in person, but “that being said, the public health aspect of this is what concerns me the most. I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet.”

During the meeting, the board also approved stipends for district staff due to the additional requirements that have been placed on them due to COVID-19 this year.

“They have been asked to do things and to exceed their normal job requirements,” Moore said.

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The board approved $500 stipends for those employees regularly scheduled to work 20 hours per week or more and $250 for those who are regularly scheduled for less than 20 hours weekly.

To be eligible, employees must have been employed since at least Sept. 14 and be employed by the district on Dec. 10 when the stipend will be paid out.

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Kerry Datillo, the district human resources director, said that as of Nov. 23, there were 1,329 employees eligible for the $500 stipend and 172 eligible for the $250 stipend for an estimated total cost of $707,500. The district will use CARES ACt funding to pay for the stipends.