BILLINGS — Billings School District 2 has 479 fewer students enrolled in 2020 compared to last year, meaning the elementary school's kindergarten - eighth grade budget could stand to lose $365,000 this year, Superintendent Greg Upham said at a board meeting Monday.
A majority of the school district's money comes from the state based on enrollment. Upham said if the downward trend continues, the elementary district could see a $2 million deficit by 2022.
Of the 479 students who left the district - about a 3 percent drop- Upham said 445 made the switch to home school.
“My concern is that if we don’t recoup this enrollment, which I’m hoping after the virus does whatever the virus does and we have whatever we need to do, a vaccine or a therapy or whatever it is. The concern for me is in fiscal year 2022, we could be looking at a $2 million reduction in our (elementary) general fund," Upham said.
The elementary schools had the biggest loss of students. The district built the elementary budget around an estimated 11,587 students. As of Oct. 5, the elementary schools had 10,991 students.
“We know predominantly that a majority of these kids went to home school. We can track that through our code. The lion’s share, 95 plus percent, have registered for home school. That is not uncommon looking across the state at other AA districts also,” Upham said.
Upham said the high schools saw an increase of 117 students this year, and that budget won't be negatively impacted by enrollment numbers.
Billings voters approved a $1.6 million operational mill levy for the elementary schools in July. The district made $4 million in cuts to the elementary budget in November 2019, eliminating early reading and math interventionists.
Upham said the district has been dipping into the "rainy day fund" to cover the elementary budget for the past two years.
“It’s why you have rainy day funds and those types of situations. And the first question you’re going to ask me is, aren’t we already accessing the rainy day funds for the budget deficit, and have been using it for several years? Yes, that’s true," Upham said.
Upham said the elementary schools would be in "worse shape" if the community hadn't passed the levy earlier this year.
Upham said the Montana School Boards Association is working to get some help from the state legislature in the upcoming session. The action proposed is for districts to be "held harmless" in their budgets for at least the 2020 school year, Upham said. The idea is to possibly have districts receive state funding based on last year's enrollment numbers.
On a brighter note, the Billings school district has been holding its own when it comes to keeping COVID-19 out of the schools. Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton told trustees there hasn't been any traditional outbreaks in the schools, where one person infects multiple people around them.
“We haven’t seen, that I’ve heard of certainly, what you would think of as an outbreak in schools where one child is positive, then multiple children around them become positive. That’s the classic outbreak scenario. When you look at what we’re seeing, we’re not seeing that," Felton said.
Upham said the school district monitors weekly case counts and agreed that there haven't been any clusters.
“We are not seeing large numbers of cases in a short period of time," Upham said.
Upham broke down some of the total number of COVID-19 cases across the Billings schools.
For the week of Oct. 11 - 17, there were 11 cases across all elementary schools with the highest number of cases spread in two schools, Upham said.
In the same time frame, there were 10 active cases identified in the middle schools, with the most in Castlerock Middle School at 5 cases. Upham said one middle school had four cases, another had one case the three other middle schools had zero cases.
The Billings high schools had 17 total active cases in the same time frame. Senior had six cases, Skyview had five, West had four and the Career Center had two cases, Upham said.
In the same time frame, a total of 19 staff tested positive for COVID-19 across the district, Upham said. Four staff cases came from the elementary schools, one from the middle schools, and 14 from the elementary schools, Upham said. Felton complimented the district, noting that the county saw 762 new cases in the same time period.
"I think the schools have been very solid in setting their distancing requirements, setting their masking requirements," Felton said.
The county health department has deputized all building administrators, executive directors and nurses as agents of the health department to do contact tracing in schools. Felton and Upham attributed their quick work to keeping cases low.
“They are doing double and triple time trying to keep our doors open, which I’ve had conversations with Mr. Felton about can we look to relieve some of this. Because I’m being totally honest with you, I don’t know how long we can sustain it. In the elementary (schools) it may be a bit easier because they are smaller, but I know in our high schools it’s a significant challenge," Upham said.
Of the multiple cases that pop up in schools, Upham said the cases in the same school seem not to have contact with one another, so they know the disease isn't spreading between the students in that situation.
“If you say Senior has six (cases), the first thing that you want to ask when you are contact tracing is, are the six connected and is the transmission of one or two creating the six. If it is, it’s a significant action item that says okay, where are these? Versus the six (cases) being, one is a freshman, two are sophomores and they are on opposite sides of the building and have never seen each other before," Upham said.
The deputized school contact tracers can only give as much information to others about a COVID-19 case as the health department allows. Felton said they basically only talk to the infected person and the close contacts. They are not allowed to make general announcements about cases to the school at large or parents, Felton said.
Upham said the school contact tracers share information with him. Upham said he speaks with Felton almost daily about the cases in the schools and if classrooms, sections of the building, or entire schools need to be quarantined and closed.
“You have to identify the transmission and where the transmission is occurring and how widespread is the transmission. That’s what drives the action," Upham said.
The Billings school district has offered both in-person and remote classes in the 2020 school year. As of Monday, Upham said 2,516 students are enrolled in remote classes, 963 remote students are in K-5, 681 are in middle school and 872 in high school.
Upham said the district hired between 35-40 new staff members to teach remotely, with 112 total staff members teaching remotely. Upham said the remote learning platform was paid for with money from the federal CARES Act (coronavirus relief) money. Upham said if there isn't more funding, the district won't be able to offer it again next year.