After a long summer, Elly and Lyle Grossman were up bright and early on Wednesday morning. They brushed their teeth, packed their lunches, and ate a quick breakfast — then it was out the door, and time to start a school day like no other.
This school year comes with more than just the typical back-to-school jitters. Lyle Grossman, a fourth grader, said although he has missed his friends this summer, he’s nervous about going back to school during a pandemic.
An impossible choice faces school districts in Montana and nationwide, between the long-term learning outcomes of their students, particularly the youngest, and the health and well-being of their staff members, particularly the oldest.
“All parents have a really hard decision to make right now, and no matter what their choice is or was, it’s the right one,” said Kayla Jo Grossman, Elly and Lyle’s mom.
In early August, Cascade and Centerville Public Schools — rural districts with only a fraction of the number of students of Great Falls and Helena Public Schools — opted for in-person learning for the fall semester, with an online option. That decision requires costly public health measures that most districts, especially rural ones with less funding options, have no experience with.
In both Centerville and Cascade, face coverings will be required. Students and faculty will be trained on social distancing measures, and mandatory temperature checks will be conducted at the front doors. To keep students of different age groups apart, the schools will use separate entrances.
Centerville Public Schools Superintendent John McGee said without federal stimulus funding from Congress through the CARES Act, Centerville probably wouldn’t have been able to afford the costs of reopening in person. But while those costs will continue to increase, Congress has reached an impasse on another stimulus package.
Worries about keeping the virus out of the building still continue to plague district administrators. In Centerville alone, students from all over the region — Sand Coulee, Tracy, Stockett, and Centerville — congregate in one building. But most parents and district officials told MTN News they trust the school district and are happy to be back.
“School is really a social part of a small community, and so when the kids arrive they’re our lifeblood,” McGee said.
Although many rural school districts didn’t fare well with remote learning last semester, McGee said students and teachers in Centerville were already experienced with online learning platforms like Google Classroom. And thanks to the efforts of a few local telecommunications providers, most local students had access to the internet.
If an individual tests positive for COVID-19 in either school and the Cascade City-County Health Department recommends closing, it’s possible that the schools could transition back to online learning later this year. But both plans are subject to change, depending on state and county public health guidelines.