HELENA — Schools have been feeling the stresses of COVID-19 since March when they initially moved to remote learning. The challenges associated with COVID-19 in the education system for educators, students and parents have only continued over the last seven months. Educators are concerned about lasting implications and impacts.
Lewis and Clark County has seen a steep rise in COVID cases in recent weeks, with 598 active cases reported as of Monday, Oct. 26. Lewis and Clark Public Health (LCPH) says increased cases will ultimately have an impact on area schools.
“I ask that our community really step up and help our schools because they can’t do it alone,” said Health Officer Drenda Niemann. “What parents and students are doing outside of the school day will have a direct impact on if a school is able to stay open.”
Niemann says the K-12 schools, both public and private, have done a great job at limiting impacts of COVID in their classes. The vast majority of student and teacher cases investigated by LCPH have shown that the teacher or student caught the virus in the community, not at the school. However, any COVID-19 case at a school has an impact.
Helena and East Helena Public Schools have had multiple instances or students or staff testing positive. The affected classes have had quarantine for a period of time to prevent spread within the school.
Even private schools like St. Andrew School in Helena have been impacted by COVID in recent weeks. After a couple teachers contacted the virus in the community, administration made the decision to move to remote learning for a couple weeks.
Principal GG Grotbo says the decision was made to quickly stop any potential spread to students or families.
“I felt that we are such a small school and I wanted the teachers to be safe,” said Grotbo. “As it turned out we have very minimal cases and they’re all recovering. So taking that 14 days seems like it was a very prudent decision.”
St. Andrew, like other area schools, has reduced student interaction to “cohorts” or “pods” and requires wearing a mask or face shield in class.
When MTN spoke with principals and superintendents in the Helena area at the beginning of the school year, each one had a pragmatic approach. Their COVID plans were designed to address not if, but when the virus was to find its way into the school and limit potential exposure.
“We knew that it would come, it’s in the community, and so you can only control what happens at your school,” explained Grotbo. “We can’t control what happens to family outside of school. Because it is in the community, we can only do what we can to help stem it a little bit from coming into our school.”
COVID-19 has had a significant impact on the education of students across the country just by the nature of how schools have had to respond.
This fall most schools elected to return to in-person learning either full time or with a hybrid model. However, schools have reported needing to do a lot more catch up this year to make up for the spring.
Students at school learn more than just core subjects like math and English. The school setting provides vital social and emotional skills. It’s also a way to address a lack of nutrition or abuse the child may be suffering
Kids will often collaborate with each other on their work in a classroom. Some students feel more comfortable asking a peer a question rather than drawing the attention of the class by asking a teacher.
Athletics and other extracurricular activities are also important to a lot of students, and can provide an affordable path to higher education.
As coronavirus cases continue to rise in Montana, so too does the chance of teachers and students catching the virus. Depending on who contacts the virus, schools may need to quarantine entire classes or cancel sporting events.
Remote learning has also brought about more stresses for teachers and students that wouldn’t normally exist in a classroom.
“What I've gotten the sense from kids that have to do remote learning is that the students themselves are overwhelmed by them feeling like they’re alone or they can’t ask the questions they want to ask. It’s hard when you’re not in-person with those kids,” said Grotbo.
Educators doing remote learning will often spend additional time checking in on their students to ensure they’re navigating the material. But depending on the number of students, the amount of time required can be all consuming.
Higher education is experiencing similar issues as K-12 schools, with stress and mental health being a primary concern.
“Managing COVID on top of coursework and everything else, we have seen additional stress on students,” said Carroll College Vice President Chato Hazelbaker. “We have a really good counseling staff and we added a counselor this year to keep up with that demand, but it’s definitely a stressful time on students and we do see mental health stresses as a part of everyone dealing with COVID.”
Carroll College had an outbreak of COVID reported in their student body two weeks ago. As of Friday Oct. 23, the school was dealing with a total of 43 active cases both on and off campus.
Unlike a K-12 school, a lot of Carroll’s students live on campus meaning they quarantine at the school.
When Carroll first started back up this fall they had eight students test positive that were coming in from out of the community. Each student was quarantined until cleared by the school following CDC and LCPH guidelines. The new outbreak was brought into the school by students contracting the virus in the community.
Carroll’s new positive cases have started to decline and the situation is being closely monitored to prevent another outbreak.
Affected students and staff have moved to a virtual classroom setting until they are cleared to return to in-person learning, However, not all classes can be done virtually, like nursing and chemistry labs.
“There’s no replacement for that in-class experience,” said Hazelbaker. “That’s why right now we’re really working on doubling down, really looking at our spring plans and make sure we take some lessons from this fall and apply them so we can come back strong.”
Until COVID cases go down or a vaccine is readily available, this is unfortunately the reality for many schools for the time being.
Current prevalence of COVID-19 in the community means there is an increased chance students or educators will catch the virus in the community. That can then lead to more quarantining, canceled events, less time in a classroom and stress for families.