BILLINGS — A preliminary plan to get Billings public school students back in the classroom was unveiled at a virtual board meeting Monday and it gives parents the option to stick with online learning for their students.
Billings School District 2 Superintendent Greg Upham presented the plan to trustees.
“What we would try to do with the remote learning is create the win-win and place by priority those that have significant COVID-19 issues in addition to others who may be requesting for a variety of reasons,"Upham said.
Parents will also have the option to send their students to traditional, in-person school, where administrators are doing what they can to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 spread.
Upham said there will primarily be three safety practices used among the students and staff, physical distancing through placing students in cohorts, wearing masks and hand hygiene.
In the initial plan, students will be required to stick with a curriculum, either in person or online, for the entire school year.
Upham encouraged parents to make the decision ahead of the August 24 start date. This will make class scheduling much easier for district staff in the coming weeks.
“There is an enormous amount of work in front of us," Upham said.
Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton answered trustee's questions at the meeting. He described how planning a school year during a pandemic is an exercise in managing risk.
“There is no risk-free option here. In many cases, we have to decide which of those risks we can tolerate," Felton said.
Students attending in-person classes will have some changes to their typical day. Upham mentioned assigned seating on buses is a possibility.
Students will be placed into cohorts and allowed minimal interactions with other groups. This practice makes for easier contact tracing if someone gets sick.
“If one of them becomes ill, that’s a much smaller group to deal with than if they are interacting with the entirety of the school," Felton said.
There will be flexibility within the mask requirement to allow students some time without wearing one. Upham asked parents for their help in making sure their students are masked.
“We need our community to help us with this. We need the virus to settle itself back down again. Face coverings work and they work very well. Do not dismiss that," Upham said.
If a student or faculty member becomes sick, Upham said the district would have the school nurses document the scenario of spread. From there, RiverStone Health would advise the contact tracing efforts.
Upham also asked parents to make sure their contact information is up to date with the school.
So, in the case a kid gets sick at school parents can be contacted to pick them up. As well, parents should have a back up plan to get their kid should they be at work or unable to get them, Upham said.
“Make alternate plans for a student to go somewhere in the case that child is ill or needs to be picked up. That’s a very important piece to this," Upham said.
Upham said school staff won't be checking the temperatures of every student entering the building. Felton said the temperature checks would serve to congregate students and increase the risk of spread.
Upham asked for parents help in making sure their children stay home if they suspect the child may be ill.
“Do not allow sick children to come to school. We will be very clear on that for obvious reasons. The same goes for staff and faculty. We pride ourselves, as Americans, on coming to work because we’re tough. That can’t happen anymore," Upham said.
District officials are hoping that there will overall be a smaller number of students attending in person classes. Based on the results of a survey the district conducted last week, it expects around 5,000 students to be enrolled in online-only classes. Total enrollment is around 17,600 students, Upham said.
“Due to the stark increase in the number of cases that came forward in the last couple of weeks, there’s been a lot more interest in remote learning. Prior to that, it was fairly quiet," Upham said.
While the online curriculum will be taught mostly online, Upham said there could be opportunities to get online students in physical school for vocational, or advanced placement classes.
Bringing those online students in the building is another risk to manage.
Upham said the overall plan for the school year is flexible and could change if new scientific information is learned about COVID-19. He requested to schedule a special school board meeting next week to provide more details about the plan.