BILLINGS — Billings School District 2 Superintendent Greg Upham said Wednesday he's hearing parents' and students' frustrations about a proposal to not allow friends and family inside this year's high school graduation ceremony.
Upham answered questions sent in by Billings parents and students in a Facebook live video.
"We’re talking about gathering and being able to manage the gathering. I fully understand the parent piece and we’re just walking through all of the issues. We’ve heard a lot of concerns and frustrations with the graduation plan that’s laid out. I want to continue to work through that and find a resolution for our community. Please know that we are listening. I am listening," Upham said.
Upham revealed a plan Monday at a school board meeting for the graduation, which includes three separate ceremonies across the Billings high schools with only 10 students graduating at a time, no family or friends allowed inside.
The school board voted unanimously Monday to continue online-only classes through the end of the school year. Plans for graduation remain up in the air.
Upham said the rule for groups of 10 is based on phase one of Montana Gov. Steve Bullock's plan to reopen the state and maintain social distancing to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Upham answered a question asking why churches were allowed to open, but why could graduation not take a similar form.
"Ten or less people is phase one of the governor’s procedures. And it’s just that 10 can’t be in close proximity to another 10 or another three unless you’re in a family group. So churches can have a lot of people. But what they would ask is that the family group that sits together be at least six feet from the other family group" Upham said.
Upham has said that the plan for graduation is flexible and could be changed if the governor loosened restrictions on group gatherings. In the meantime, Upham said he's listening to feedback from the community to share with the high school principals.
“I’ve received a lot of feedback, a lot of disappointment among students and parents. We continue to look at what we can do to assist with those frustrations. Trust me, I hear you. We are looking at everything we can look at. And still make sure that we maintain the directives. And overall, at the end of the day, it’s the safety of everyone. That’s what’s driving all of this," Upham said.
Sanitizing surfaces between each graduation ceremony is a challenge to allowing friends and family in to watch the ceremony, Upham said.
“On top of that, being able to clean and disinfect as individuals come in and out of the building. That’s probably one of our biggest hurdles that we have to overcome. And it’s not a deal breaker at all, because we have to get used to this. It’s just a matter of systematically doing that," Upham said.
The process of cycling 10 graduates at a time could take days to complete. Upham told the board Monday the process could start in early or mid May.
The school district is developing procedures for is how students or parents will be able to pick up belongings that may have been left in lockers or desks. Upham said dates and more information about the pick up will be made available in a calendar for the month of May that is being put together.
Students in middle and high schools will not have to worry about a traditional "high-stakes final exam," Upham said. The exception is students in advanced placement or dual college credit courses. Teachers will be looking at individual students learning retention to identify deficiencies to improve upon next school year.
“Our teachers are way more concerned with what has been learned or what hasn’t been learned more so than a grade. We don’t want to grade unfairly by any means. That being said, I do want to make sure that we work to the best of our ability to complete the work. That is important," Upham said.
Upham said the district has been working on providing some sort of summer school opportunity for Billings students, but the program hasn't taken an exact shape. The teachers being able to identify student proficiency at the end of this year is key to bringing students up to speed by next year.
“It’s really important for us as a system, and for the family and individual student, to really see where your deficits are when we finish this year out walking into next year. So, in the case that we offer summer school specific to whatever that is, you’ll have an advantage and take care of that. And/ or it helps us plan for next fall," Upham said.
Upham hopes that Billings students will be back in the classroom by next fall. Although the future is uncertain.
"For all of us, we don’t know what the future holds. As we reopen the state, I’m curious to watch and see if there are more positive cases that come forward. And what the doctors and scientists will do," Upham said. "And maybe it’s wishful thinking, please for all of us we want to start in our normal time frame in August.”