Schools in Great Falls and across the country began sending students home in March. That’s when Jennifer Martin, the principal at Mountain View Elementary School in Great Falls, says the prep for the 2020 fall semester began.
Martin says that even though she wasn’t contractually obligated to be at work during the summer, she often found herself and many of her teachers there at least once a week, and even more frequently as August 26 drew closer.
“I know that the administration has been working a lot more than myself this summer,” said Mountain View fourth-grade teacher Kourtney Holten. “They’ve been working tremendously hard to figure out the procedures and things like that. For me, I came back into the school on the first day of August and have been setting up my classroom, doing Zoom meetings, taking COVID training, and knowing what’s happening when I come back to school.”
Classroom setup, Zoom meetings, COVID-19 training, and so much more has gone into getting the district’s schools ready for the upcoming semester.
As of this week, more than 1,500 students in the district have opted for remote learning instead of in-person. The breakdown is 250 from the district’s middle schools, 500 from the high schools, and 800 from the elementary schools.
Still, teachers are excited to see their students again - online, yes, but especially in person. “I think that we’re all excited because we all love to teach,” explained Riverview Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Dennis Hogan. “We’re really excited about having face-to-face instruction with all the students. That’s always going to be there. There’s a little bit of frustration at some of the things we’re not going to be able to do right away like group work and that because kids will need to stay within their social distancing and that, so with the COVID requirements, it’s a little bit different but I think we’re all still feeling really on edge and excited that kids are coming back.”
At Riverview, hand sanitizer bottles are littered throughout the building, as are signs reminding people to keep six feet between themselves and others and to follow the flow of the hallway traffic, which now only goes one way.
I followed Riverview Principal Luke Diekhans into a few different classrooms and hallways as he shows me what they’ve done to prepare their school for reopening. Unused desks are removed from classrooms to make it easier to spread out the desks that will be used. Nurses that were once split between schools or part-time are now full-time and stationed at one school.
I asked Principal Diekhans what differences students and their families can expect to see this year. “The better question might be ‘what is not different,’ truthfully,” he says. “Just movement around the building, being able to sanitize coming in, going out, back and forth. Not that they’re new procedures, but it’s new ways of doing things, and new routines that we’re going to have to build, whether we’re staff members or students.”
After going through a few different stages the statewide mask mandate for K-12 schools in all counties with four or more active cases of COVID-19 still stands, but Governor Bullock says districts may make a “narrow allowance” for students to remove face coverings while seated in classrooms where physical distancing of at least six feet is “strictly observed.”
Some schools are asking parents to make sure their child brings a water bottle to school. While there will be opportunities for them to refill those water bottles, gone are the days of every student touching the same knobs and spouts on the communal water fountains.
Personal space has been rebranded as “physical distancing," and is now more important than ever.
Back to my conversation with Principal Jennifer Martin of Mountain View. “Students are going to arrive outside; we are lucky that the majority of our classrooms have an outside door, and so we have full-time aids now this year which we did not have before,” Martin explained. “So, we’ll have personnel assigned to different places around the building greeting those students and showing them where to go into the classroom. One of the things that’s different this year is our teachers are actually going to start in the classrooms right at 8:10, we’re going to let students come in versus staying on the playground and playing, which was typical prior to COVID. So, they’re going to be able to come in, we’ll have aids available to help supervise, teachers in the classroom to help with supervising and just a lot of escorting students.”
Those are just a fraction of the changes, at one school, in one district, in one state.
The 2020-2021 school year will be unlike any we have ever seen before; that much is undeniable. What is also undeniable is that these teachers appear to be fully dedicated to not only keeping their students safe but also to continuing to provide them with a quality education under these extreme circumstances.
"Safety is my first priority for the children,” said Holten. “If they’re not safe, they can’t learn. So, that’s my first priority, but I hope that we can get through it and figure it out together. We still want them learning on a daily basis, but safety is our number one.”
Both principals feel ready, but aren’t shy about asking parents for some help before day one.
“If you can send masks with your kids, we would greatly appreciate that, we will have masks here if somebody would need one, though,” said Principal Diekhans. “Not only that, just practicing with your kids the next 24-48 hours, wearing that mask. There will be wearing masks for an extended period of time in the classroom, so having a little bit of practice and getting used to communicating with them on and getting the comfort factor down as well.”
“Before you guys arrive on Wednesday, first, we’re really excited to have you,” Martin said with a smile. “We’ve been working tirelessly to prepare for you. Teachers and staff have gone through a lot of COVID training and procedures. Please remember to send a face mask, send a water bottle with your child because our water fountains are currently closed. Show some grace, grace for yourselves, grace for us, we’re learning through this together and we’ve prepared as much as we can.”
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