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Helena schools: COVID staffing shortages could force some schools back online

Helena Public Schools
Posted at 5:59 PM, Nov 09, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-09 20:56:38-05

HELENA — Every day, Helena Public Schools Human Resources is responsible for making sure all of the district’s schools are fully staffed. It’s a job that has become much more difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“With the virus transmitting through many of our families – through our community as a whole – we see way more absences, for longer periods of time,” said Stacy Collette, the district’s human resources director.

District leaders say around 10% of their employees currently aren’t able to work in person. That includes those who have tested positive for COVID-19, those who are remaining home because of symptoms, those in quarantine as a close contact of someone who tested positive and those who are taking care of someone in quarantine.

Teachers who have to stay at home can still work with their classes online, but if students are on campus, someone needs to be there to supervise them.

Collette said Helena Public Schools usually has a pool of about 55 substitute teachers available, but that pool is down to about 35 this year. That means they’ve had to look at other ways to fill vacancies.

“Our staff has been fabulous in coming up with some creative ideas,” said Collette. “We have paraprofessionals who are serving as on-site proctors while our teachers are porting in from their homes. We also have people moving from classroom to classroom to try and facilitate supervision and fill in for their peers.”

Superintendent Tyler Ream said, if the district continues to see these types of staff shortages, they may have to consider “intermittent closures” – temporarily sending some schools back to all-online learning.

“As we continue to see numbers go up across our community, it’s definitely something that is on the radar of possibility – because at some point we simply can’t make a go of it, we don’t have enough people physically available to meet the needs of the students,” he said.

Over the last month, COVID numbers in Lewis and Clark County have been high enough that the district has looked at the possibility of going back to fully online instruction. The county has averaged more than 50 cases per 100,000 population per day – above the threshold for considering closing school buildings in HPS’ metrics-based phasing model.

However, Ream said they’re not currently planning to take that step districtwide. The district’s other main consideration in phasing decisions has been input from Lewis and Clark Public Health. Ream said Public Health leaders still don’t believe there has been much virus transmission within school buildings, and that precautions like smaller in-person classes, mandatory masking and distancing have limited any close contacts.

“We’re seeing other aspects of the community as a source for virus transmission, but not the schools,” said Ream. “So why should we close an aspect of our community that isn’t a source? They don’t know that that’s actually going to be helpful in any regard.”

The district is always looking for more people to serve as substitutes. If you are interested in being considered, you can find more information on how to apply on the Helena Public Schools website.

Also, the Montana City School District has informed parents that it will be transferring all students to remote learning through Nov. 27.

In a statement posted on their website, district leaders said, “The complexity of recent cases, the shortage of human resources and the advisement of the Jefferson County Health Department requires we transfer all students to remote learning beginning tomorrow.”

The district said they would have been required to close for at least two weeks, and they didn’t want to return for only one day before the Thanksgiving break. Montana City students are set to return to in-person classes on Monday, Nov. 30.