Billings school leaders want to bridge distance-learning gap with coronavirus stimulus money

Posted at 2:49 PM, Apr 30, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-30 16:49:11-04

With federal stimulus dollars on the way, officials with Billings School District 2 said Wednesday they have a plan for how to bridge the learning gap and move forward with enhanced cleaning at schools.

The federal coronavirus relief act will provide the district with about $3.2 million to help offset the financial impact of the pandemic.

Superintendent Greg Upham has a tentative plan for how to spend that money, some of which he says he must give to private schools operating in the district.

First, he says safety and increased measure to keep things sanitary are a must.

“Our whole business is, number one, the safety of our staff and our students first,” said Upham.

He said the money will help the district fund safety measures through infrastructure upgrades.

“It allows us to go after additional cleaning supplies,” he said. “It allows us to go after additional people from the safety perspective.”

Installing Plexiglas shields in schools where personnel deal with students and the public on a daily basis is one way of using that money.

He says hiring additional cleaning staff and buying cleaning materials is another.

But beyond that, Upham has another concern when it comes to district families and how they’ve been coping with distance learning through the pandemic.

“We know we have families that are working full time and coming home and trying to teach multi-age children in the home,” said Upham. “That's been probably in my conversations with our families- that's been the greatest challenge.”

He says not all children will thrive through distance learning.

“Some of our students do fine with independent learning. But then our students that struggle, really concern me. We were going to have to do some catch up. That's just all there is to it,” he said.

So he’s got a plan to use stimulus funds for that as well.

Upham revealed a two-tier approach to bridging the learning gap for some students due to the coronavirus shutdown.

The first phase, according to Upham, involves starting a summer boost program with face-to-face instruction. Then in the fall when classes can resume operation, offer additional supports in the school day.

“These are the types of learners that need a teacher, a live person sitting next to them,” he said. “Because the majority of our learners that struggle academically are not independent learners, it’s not like you can put a Chromebook (computer) in front of them and say, okay here’s what we are going to do.”

He said this approach would provide flexibility to get back on track. He believes the funding will assist in doing that.

“The funding was defined for us to adjust to the overages or the challenges that we are seeing with the virus,” he said.

As for the district’s $4 million deficit it was dealing with earlier this year— Upham says the stimulus dollars won’t allow for backfilling that money.

Although he said he’s already been working with the board to mitigate that deficit through cuts , something he’s disclosed through conversations with the public and trustees at board meetings.

But something that does weigh heavily on Upham’s mind as classes resume somewhat normal operations come fall is transportation.

“Busing,” he said. “What do we do to ensure our students are safe?”

He believes this could be among the biggest challenges that will need to be directly approached.

“That is a small environment with a lot of people in it,” he said. “It’s not like you can just go buy 50 more buses or find 50 more bus drivers. The workforce for bus drivers is usually retired people.”

He worries they may consider the risk to drive a bus too high.

As for if the district has saved any money while students have been out of buildings, Upham said not so much.

While the district has saved some money from reduced energy costs at empty buildings, teachers and staff are still working remotely and getting paid, and most of the district’s budget consists of payroll.

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