BILLINGS — Billings School District 2 is seeing negative impacts from COVID-19, ranging from quarantined classrooms and rising numbers of close contacts to substitute teachers not accepting jobs when they're open, said Superintendent Greg Upham in a Facebook live video Tuesday.
“Obviously, there is an uptick of cases in our community. Is it having an impact on our schools? Yes it is. We’ve been able to weather the storm … up to this point. Do I have concerns moving forward? I do," said Upham.
Billings students went back to school on Aug. 24 in both remote and in-person classes. Students have now completed a quarter of the school year. As COVID-19 cases rise in the county, there's no plan to make a district-wide switch to remote learning, Upham said.
"At this point in time, there is no plan to move to remote instruction, unless the medical/technical team comes to us and says ‘school district, based on the cases and what’s going on we recommend that you consider moving to full remote learning.’ That’s not the case right now," Upham said.
The medical/technical team is made up of doctors and infectious disease specialists from RiverStone Health and the two Billings hospitals. Upham said he meets weekly with professionals from RiverStone to talk COVID-19.
“As of right now, our medical/technical team and our community and our parents and our students for the most part want us to stay in school. We want to stay in school, that’s for sure," Upham said.
The district is seeing more students be placed in quarantine because they've been identified as a close contact to someone infected with COVID-19.
Last month, the Centers for Disease Control updated the definition of a close contact. Previously, a close contact was someone who spent 15 consecutive minutes within six feet or less of an infected person. Now, the time is cumulative, meaning separate encounters with an infected person add up over the course of a day.
“That’s going to cast a broader net as far as close contacts are concerned. I don’t know the impacts that it will have on the district. There could be more contact tracing that’s occurring. I anticipate that would happen," Upham said.
Upham said the district started using the new close contact definition on Monday. That same day, an entire elementary school classroom was placed into quarantine.
"We did have a classroom that was quarantined, an elementary-age classroom, based on this close contact protocol. But it was also in conjunction with the circumstances too, because a lot of that plays into that," Upham said.
Upham asked parents, students and teachers to be prepared to switch a classroom or entire school to remote learning.
“Be prepared if we need to go into remote for a classroom or possibly a school. We haven’t seen that yet. I’m not saying that to be fearful. I’m not saying that to be over-cautious. I just want to be honest and upfront. I don’t anticipate it, but it could happen," Upham said.
Upham heard from one Billings parent that their student was placed in two-week quarantine two separate times already this year. The parent was worried about how a month away from in-person school would affect their student's learning.
“Please know that those conversations are occurring with our medical/technical team on close contacts and the impacts that is having. It is not falling on deaf ears. I don’t have an easy answer for you, I really don’t. But we are talking about those types of situations," Upham said.
The district is also struggling to staff classrooms if teachers are quarantined or ask for time off. Upham said it's been a problem since before the COVID-19 pandemic. This year in particular, he said there are enough substitutes to go around, but some aren't choosing to work when opportunities arise.
"We have enough substitutes to cover unfilled jobs. And do we have a lot in the district? Some days we have a lot and some days we have less. Some days it makes it very challenging and we’re up against the razor," Upham said.
With help from CARES Act (federal coronavirus relief) money, the district was able to offer a raise to substitute teachers. Upham said the pattern has been that one school will have openings, then staff will come back. Then another school will have openings until staff comes back. Upham was worried about the situation of multiple schools not having enough staff.
“It’s not that we don’t have enough, it’s just that we need them to select the positions or the jobs that come open. Our administrators are working double, triple, quadruple overtime keeping our buildings going in conjunction with our teachers. We have a lot of administrators that are in classrooms teaching and trying to handle the load, not to mention the contact tracing," Upham said.
This week is the first that the district has made public the amount of COVID-19 cases in individual schools. Previous numbers released by the state only accounted for a district-wide total. In the last two weeks of October, the district had 74 total cases among students and staff.
Upham said the COVID-19 case data for individual schools will be updated every Tuesday. To view the document, click here.