EAST HELENA — East Helena School District leaders have released their first tentative plans on how they can return to in-person classes this fall, if COVID-19 restrictions remain in place.
On Wednesday, the district posted an open letter from Superintendent Ron Whitmoyer on Facebook. In it, Whitmoyer outlined the changes they’re currently looking at making – if Montana is still at Phase 2 of the state reopening plan.
Whitmoyer said district leaders felt it was important to give families an idea of what a return to classrooms in the fall could actually look like.
“People have just thousands of questions,” he said. “They’re very concerned about their children, they’re very concerned about their health, they’re very concerned about the health of our communities.”
The goal of the plans is to limit the number of students sharing spaces or items, in order to reduce the chance of the coronavirus spreading from one large group to another.
While Whitmoyer emphasized that all of these ideas are still tentative, they go into relatively specific details. For elementary school students, the current plan is to create “schools within schools.”
“Right now we’re under an order to try to maintain groups of less than 50, and our plan is to do exactly that,” Whitmoyer said.
Two classes from the same grade level will be organized into a “team.” The kids in that team will share recess times, enter and leave schools together and use the same areas of the school. Whitmoyer said that may extend to marking off specific areas of the playgrounds for each team to use.
Lunches would be served in classrooms rather than in cafeterias. Whitmoyer said they will still have to look at things like how gym classes can be organized.
On the middle- and high-school levels, district leaders are looking at switching to a “block scheduling” model. Instead of students moving through seven different class periods in a day, they would spend all their time before lunch in one class and all their time after lunch in another. They would rotate throughout the week, meaning they would be in each of their classes every three to four days.
Whitmoyer said it will be a difficult change for students and for staff, since moving from class to class is an ingrained part of middle and high school.
“If we can eliminate that, we can stop that mixing and stop the spread of the virus,” he said.
There will be another major change in the district this fall, as East Helena High School will move into its own building for the first time. Construction is set to be finished in August. Having the new high school building will provide much more room for the district to spread students out.
The school district will have to keep providing remote learning for some students who are not ready to return. Whitmoyer said they surveyed parents this week and found about 10% reported their families have health concerns that meant they’re not comfortable sending their students back to in-person classes.
Whitmoyer said he’s hopeful that, now that the district has had more practice with providing remote learning, they’ll be able to offer a more effective, more rigorous experience for students.
The East Helena School District will be developing two other parallel plans – one for if the COVID-19 situation worsens and another for if it improves. Whitmoyer said they will be working closely with Lewis and Clark Public Health and with their teaching staff as they iron out the details of every option. He asked parents for their understanding as they go through this work.
“Trust that we are putting your children first, and that their health is paramount to the work we’re doing and the planning that we’re making,” he said.
You can find Whitmoyer’s full letter outlining proposed plans for the fall on the East Helena Public Schools Facebook page.