HELENA — Gov. Steve Bullock is leaving the decision on whether to reopen schools for in-person classes in the hands of Montana’s local school boards.
On Wednesday, Bullock held a news conference to announce his plan for a “phased reopening” of the state from the measures taken to slow the spread of COVID-19. As part of that plan, all schools will have the option to reopen starting Thursday, May 7.
However, schools that do open their doors will have to take a number of factors into account, including taking measures to maintain social distancing and providing accommodations for students, teachers and staff who are in higher-risk categories.
Bullock ordered schools statewide to stop in-person classes on March 15. He now called on school districts to determine whether they can take steps to reduce the risk of spreading the virus if they return to classrooms.
“We need to figure out how to best serve our children at a time when the virus is still present in our communities,” he said.
Some school districts around the state have already announced they will not resume in-person classes before the end of this school year. Helena Public Schools Superintendent Tyler Ream said Wednesday that district leaders had been waiting to see what the governor’s guidelines would be before making a final decision.
Ream released a letter to district employees and parents after Bullock’s announcement. In it, he said district leaders have already decided they will not return to classrooms before Monday, May 11. He said they aren’t ready yet to set a definite timeline for when they will make a decision on reopening.
“We need to consult with our employees, we need to consult with health officials, we need to take the input of parents and families into this,” he said.
The state’s reopening plan says, if schools open their doors, they should plan for additional cleaning and disinfecting, require anyone showing COVID-19 symptoms to stay home and give options to teachers and staff who are at high risk and students who have health risks or have family members who are at high risk.
The plan also proposes some ways schools may be able to adopt social distancing, including breaking classes into smaller groups or having students come to class on alternating days or half-days. Ream said that type of measure will be a challenge to implement – especially with a relatively short time to plan.
“I think all parents or anybody that’s ever been in a school realizes that schools were not designed for social distancing,” he said. “In fact, almost everything that we do is nearly the opposite of social distancing – from how students line up in elementary schools to how students sit at lab tables at the high school.”
Ream said the district will take time over the next two weeks to plan for a possible return, even if they decide not to come back by June. He said, regardless of when schools return to their facilities, this planning will be valuable in preparing them for the “new normal.”
“Our priority has always been and always will be the safety of our students and employees, and we will make the decision that is consistent with that clear priority,” Ream said.
You can find a link to Bullock’s full plan for reopening Montana, including schools, here.