HELENA — Helena School District leaders have adopted a data-based model to help them decide when to scale up or scale down school operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
At a meeting Tuesday, the Helena school board approved going forward with a “metrics-based” system. However, Superintendent Tyler Ream said they will still be refining the model as the year goes on.
“What the board really approved on Tuesday was a commitment that we would use data – and particularly local data – as an indicator in informing decisions that we need to make,” he said.
The district has been working on the model for a number of weeks, with input from public health leaders.
The primary indicator will be the number of positive COVID-19 cases reported in Lewis and Clark County by week and by day – adjusted to the rate per 100,000 population so it can be compared against other agencies’ baselines.
The rate will fall into one of four ranges, each linked to one of HPS’s phases of reopening. If it reaches a lower range for three consecutive weeks, leaders will consider moving to a less restrictive phase. If it rises to a higher range for three weeks, they may return to tighter restrictions.
The district will also consider other data to provide more context when making their decisions. That includes the positivity rate for COVID-19 tests in the county, the upward or downward trend in case numbers and the number of cases associated with schools.
In the last two weeks, Lewis and Clark County has seen a much higher case rate than it previously had – 120 and 107 per 100,000 per week, respectively. Under Helena Public Schools’ current metrics-based model, those numbers correspond with the district’s Phase I – the hybrid online and in-person classes students are currently in.
Ream said their original draft model was more conservative, with a lower threshold for phasing down school operations. He said they adjusted it after looking at more guidance from organizations around the country – particularly a recommendation from the Harvard Global Health Institute.
“Ultimately, most people feel more comfortable with something in the middle,” Ream said.
The number of “school-associated” COVID cases in the district has continued to grow in recent weeks. As of Thursday, HPS had reported 29 cases among students and staff – 19 of them in the last two weeks.
However, Ream said leaders still believe their rules on masking and social distancing have limited any spread within the schools. He said public health leaders have told the district they haven’t seen a need to return to remote learning.
“We can’t stop the virus necessarily from coming into school, but we can stop it from spreading in schools by utilizing these health and safety protocols,” said Ream. “As long as our health partners are expressing confidence that that’s working, it gives me confidence to stay in this Phase I, as opposed to Phase 0.”
Ream said, judging by the recent COVID-19 data in Lewis and Clark County, it’s unlikely the district would be ready to propose any change in phases until next month at the earliest.