HELENA — On Mar. 5, the playground of Jim Darcy elementary was filled with a welcomed sound that had been diminished and often absent for many months, the laughter of children.
“It puts a big smile on my face even though no one can see it,” said Jim Darcy Principal Brian Cummings.
Friday marked the first full week that all elementary grades are back to full in-person learning at Helena Public Schools under Phase III. The school district closed all school buildings and moved to remote learning nearly 1 year ago when the first cases of COVID-19 started appearing in Montana.
The Helena School District reopened under Phase I in September, a hybrid model that mixed two days of in-person learning with remote learning.
Kindergarten through 2nd grade returned to a four-day week on Feb. 22 with 3rd through 5th grades returning the week of Mar. 1. Middle school students will return to four-day week on mar. 8 and high schools will return on Mar. 15.
Cummings says moving through each variation in the past year has been like a new beginning a new year of school.
There’s been small challenges in the past two weeks as his students returned-- kids are good at throwing wrenches into the best laid plans-- but overall everyone is learning to find a balance.
“You can ask any employee, once they’re here a lot of the stress leading up just goes away,” Cummings said. “We worry about doing a good job with our procedures and protocols, but it sure feels good to have them back.”
There’s no denying things look different in the Helena school system. New COVID policies can be found just about everywhere, with signs and floor markings throughout the buildings.
At Jim Darcy, one of the newer schools with more space, kids are spread out in classrooms and while they’re eating lunch.
Masks covered the face of every staff member and student at Jim Darcy.
During recess kids were racing across the playground and flinging themselves over playground equipment. With such energetic activity, naturally masks would slip down or fall off. Yet each time MTN witnessed a mask come off, it was quickly put right back in place with no words from any adult.
Administration says getting to Phase III of school reopening was only possible through the hard work of everyone in the school district, from facilities to paraeducator staff.
“I’m very thankful for everybody that put in so many hours weekends, holidays, everything to get us to this point,” said Helena School Superintendent Tyler Ream. “I know it can be very much anxiety provoking to do something new and different. But I’m really proud of our educators and our students.”
School officials recognize that there is still a long road ahead to get every student back to the same academic marks they’d like them to be, but can confidently say Helena educators are committed to being there for the students.
“Everybody has stepped up and of course our number one objective is to support these kids the second they walk through these doors,” said Cummings.
Educational well-being isn’t the only concern of school staff. Schools often provide a much needed check on the social, emotional, nutritional and physical well-being of children.The return to a full week of school has helped educators once again serve that important role.
Helena Schools are still offering remote learning for families that want that option or need it due to a medical condition.
President Biden recently elevated educators to qualify for the COVID-19 vaccine through federal participating pharmacies. Supplies are still limited, but educators can check online to find out which pharmacies are participating and if doses are available.