HELENA — Helena Public Schools leaders say they’re watching the local COVID-19 situation closely, but for now, it’s not significantly changing their plans for the start of the school year.
Rex Weltz, the district’s new superintendent, says their goal has always been for the 2021 school year to be close to normal for students, and that’s still their plan. However, he says they’re ready to make changes quickly if conditions call for it.
“I think we will be in that mode for a long time,” Weltz said. “We just know that COVID’s not going to go away, we will see spikes, we’ll adjust and move forward.”
Some of the precautions the district put in last year will still be in place when classes resume Aug. 30. Students will still be spaced further apart and the schools will do extra cleaning. However, classes will be in person five days a week, with normal starting and ending times. Plastic dividers between desks will mostly be gone, and masks will not be required, only recommended.
In recent weeks, the CDC updated its recommendations on masking, saying K-12 students and staff should wear masks in school.
Weltz said HPS leaders have been watching the national discussion on COVID variants, but not using that as the basis for their decisions.
“What we really want to make sure is that we know what’s going on here in Helena, not on the east side of the state or the west side of the state, not what’s going on in Washington D.C., what’s going on here, and we will adjust accordingly to what happens here.”
COVID numbers in Lewis and Clark County have increased in recent weeks, though they remain lower than in other large Montana counties. On Friday, Lewis and Clark Public Health leaders said the area was again seeing “substantial community transmission” of the virus.
District leaders have been in touch with LCPH about how to handle COVID this year. For example, if students and employees have been vaccinated, they won’t have to quarantine if they’re in close contact to a COVID case, unless they develop symptoms.
Weltz said the district is taking the virus seriously, but that they don’t want to make it their main focus. He said their priority will be providing core instruction and addressing the needs of students who have academic, social and emotional “gaps” after a year of remote and hybrid learning.
“I want to stress that kids aren’t broken,” he said. “We know that there was some loss of learning, and we’ll adjust to that – and quite frankly we have. We’ve added academic coaches throughout every elementary building; we added personnel to help teachers, help students.”
Helena Public Schools will not be offering a large-scale remote learning program this year, like the Digital Learning Initiative they operated last year. However, Weltz said they will work with some families who have specific health issues that prevent students from attending in person.
You can find information on the district’s current plan for the school year here.