HELENA — Helena Public Schools leaders say they are still in discussions about how the COVID-19 outbreak will impact final grades and graduation.
Superintendent Tyler Ream discussed some possible plans during a Helena School District Board of Trustees meeting Tuesday evening. He stressed that no final decisions have been made yet.
Ream said the district is working on several possible plans for graduation celebrations. They range from the traditional ceremonies at Carroll College to a “digital option” – a ceremony streamed online. They are also considering modified options in between, like a set of smaller ceremonies or one held without guests, so that students could social distance themselves.
The final decision will depend on whether there is any loosening in the public health guidelines in the coming weeks. Ream said they will likely have to make their plan by around the first week of May – one month before the scheduled graduation day.
Ream said, if 2020 seniors aren’t able to have their planned graduation, the district will look at possibly bringing them back next year for the ceremony they miss out on. Still, he said, leaders want to find a way to honor students now.
“I’m not a fan of our students finishing up the school year in June and us saying, ‘Yeah, we’re going to do something, but it’s going to be at a later date and we don’t know when, have a great summer and we’ll see you soon,’” he said. “I want to be able to do something in June for those students, in alignment with whatever restrictions are in place.”
However, the school board’s two student representatives – Zyanne Cervantes of Capital High and Hannah Muszkiewicz of Helena High – argued strongly against a fully digital graduation during Tuesday’s meeting. They said that type of event would only serve to emphasize what seniors wouldn’t get to experience.
“It’s like rubbing it in,” said Cervantes. “It’s like, ‘We’re not getting this in-person ceremony, so here, we’re going to give you this instead.’ It’s almost more degrading to do that rather than just not have the ceremony at all.”
Last week, the Montana Office of Public Instruction – along with statewide organizations like the Montana School Boards Association and Montana Federation of Public Employees – released a letter to school districts. It encouraged them to plan to continue remote learning for the rest of the school year, and to postpone graduation ceremonies or come up with alternative forms.
Ream and district trustees said they had heard from a number of residents who thought the letter meant decisions to keep school buildings closed or cancel graduation had already been made. They said those decisions will be made locally, and that it’s still too early to finalize them.
“I think we owe it to our graduates and their families to try to make that decision as close to the actual date as we can, because we don’t know what the next few weeks are going to look like,” said Ream.
District leaders are also still determining how to provide the final grades of the school year, for classes that will have been conducted largely through remote learning. Ream said much of the information teachers use for assessment is informal – based on being around students and observing them over time. That information may not be available now.
Leaders say they want to make sure the grading system is sensitive to students’ individual needs, that it takes into account barriers some kids faced and – especially for older students – that it doesn’t limit their future opportunities.
Ream said they are currently leaning toward maintaining the traditional letter grades for middle- and high-schoolers, but giving them the option to choose a “credit-only” grade. For elementary students, they are considering an alternative “progress report” format, focusing on their proficiency in learning standards and giving the students’ next teacher a better idea of where they are.