Montana school districts continue to grapple with COVID-19

Posted at 7:08 AM, Oct 13, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-13 15:40:08-04

GREAT FALLS — Great Falls Public Schools continue to post daily COVID-19 case updates Monday through Friday on their website. The latest update for October 12 showed 19 active cases in the district: four at East Middle School, three at C.M. Russell High School, and 1-2 cases here and there at other schools.

At a GFPS board meeting on Monday night, Superintendent Tom Moore addressed the district’s plan for potential staff shortages and said that the district will continue to address school case clusters on a case-by-case basis when it comes to determining if that school needs to transition to remote learning for cleaning and contact tracing. Moore also said the district is monitoring county case numbers and hospital capacity updates, an important point in the wake of several hospitals across the state expressing their increasingly limited spaces.

Staff shortages is an issue that Lewistown Public Schools is familiar with. They transitioned all their schools to remote learning for the first time for the week of October 12.

“We just have two students and two staff members that tested positive,” said Lewistown Public Schools Superintendent Thom Peck. “But what happens with that is you have to place a lot of people in quarantine, to make sure that, you know, you suppress the spread of the virus. And because we have over 80 people, you know, staff and students, that were placed in quarantine. Or you might have a staff member that has a child placed in quarantine. So then they have to stay home to take care of their child. And what sort of happened with it was we didn't have enough substitutes to really do a good job with in-person instruction.”

Peck stressed how important it is to him and his staff that in-person learning stays the norm and that remote learning is only used when necessary. The staffing issue is not unique to Lewistown, and while Peck said that his district doesn’t typically have these issues, it is common for rural school districts in Montana to compete for substitute teachers. Despite that, he said that they have had four of their regular subs opt not to work in schools while COVID-19 continues to rage.

Lewistown Public Schools officials are not only keeping an eye on the COVID-19 numbers for Fergus County, but on larger counties like Cascade and Yellowstone as well.

“We really watch Cascade County,” Peck explained. “I'll give you an example. I just had a doctor's appointment and it was in Great Falls. So we have Fergus County people going back and forth to Great Falls all the time. Well, that could affect Fergus County and our numbers. And the same thing with Billings. Yellowstone is, I think number one for a long, long time as far as new cases and that kind of thing. We have a lot of people that go to Billings, whether that's for shopping or doctor appointments, certain stuff like that.”

When cases spike in Cascade or Yellowstone County, as they have been in recent days and weeks, Fergus County officials may see a spike in their cases for the very reasons that Peck identifies above.

Then there’s Hill County, home of Havre Public Schools. According to this dataset maintained by the New York Times, Hill County has seen more new cases per 100,000 in the last seven days (825) than Cascade County (195) and Yellowstone County (431) combined. Hill County has a population of just over 16,000, and Havre Public Schools consists of 1,710 K-12 students.

As of Friday, October 9, the combined number of confirmed COVID-19 cases and quarantined students in Havre Public Schools was between 160 and 180.

Superintendent Craig Mueller said that number will rise this week after nine new cases were announced in the school district on Sunday alone. For reference, Great Falls Public Schools, which has over 10,000 students, reports 19 active cases in the district, as noted above.

The Hill County Health Department reported another confirmed case of COVID-19 on Monday night, but did not offer a total current count for the district. Superintendent Mueller also did not confirm the total number of positive cases in an email on Monday, only offering the combined total for confirmed cases and quarantined students.

“As of Thursday my recommendation would be to continue in our hybrid A/B model,” Mueller’s email states. “But we will likely have serious conversations about full remote delivery of instruction given the current crisis.”

In an emergency meeting on Friday, the Havre Public Schools Board of Trustees agreed with Mueller’s recommendation, but they are expected to revisit that decision a meeting on Tuesday.

MTN is continuing to follow this outbreak in the district and will provide updates as school and health officials release more information about the spike in cases and the district’s plan moving forward.