BILLINGS — Whether Billings School District 2 will offer remote learning next year hinges on the future of COVID-19 in the community and availability of funding, school Superintendent Greg Upham said Tuesday.
Billings students will have completed half of their 180-day school year this Friday, either learning remotely or in the classroom. Upham said the plan is to offer live instruction next year, but it's still undetermined whether remote learning will be as robust or even offered next fall.
"We’re evaluating all of that right now. We don’t know what the status of the virus will be next fall, but we feel pretty good about having these discussions at this point in time and at least starting to have an open dialogue with it," Upham said.
A major piece to the remote-learning puzzle is money. The district hired 49 additional teachers for the school year, most of whom are teaching remotely. The cost to offer both remote and in-person school was an additional $5 million this year to the district's regular budget.
The district paid for the 2020-21 remote learning with the help of federal relief money. Last year, the district received $10 million in federal relief money with $3 million coming from the CARES Act and $7 million allocated from the state.
Now, the district is waiting on more federal relief from money carved out in another federal bill called Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act. The bill signed into law by President Donald Trump on Dec. 27, 2020 made $13.2 billion in relief available to the nation's public schools.
A portion of the previous federal aid the Billings school district received had a deadline of Dec. 31 to be spent. The money could only be spent on coronavirus-related expenses, such as sanitation, and pay for additional teachers. Upham said the district was able to spend its first allocation within the deadline and didn't leave any money on the table.
There may be more flexibility with the second round of relief money, but district staff haven't heard specifics yet, Upham said.
"I think there’s a little more flexibility with this one, but we haven’t received the funding yet and we haven’t received the final documentation saying how you can and can not use these funds," Upham said.
Upham said he expects to know sometime this week how much money the district will receive and how it can be spent.
Upham spoke on the phone with U.S. Sen. Jon Tester of Montana and wrote to Sen. Steve Daines, also of Montana, recently to emphasize the district's need for remote learning going forward, he said.
“I needed both senators to understand that if 2022 was going to look like 2021 that they were made aware that it was a $5 million price tag for the remote and the live instruction. I think, for the most part, our community has really benefited and appreciated both of those platforms," Upham said.
In October 2020, the school district reported about 2,500 students enrolled in remote learning. While some students can succeed in the remote environment, others struggle and need live instruction. The district will need to look at qualitative and quantitative measures to help struggling students and determine the effectiveness of remote learning, Upham said.
"We have some homes that aren’t as conducive to online learning. That’s a concern of mine. Then obviously you don’t have the connection from person to person, which we see is important. So, I know that has some impacts on it. Overall, I can’t be more pleased with the quality of instruction and the support from our staff and administrators and teachers and the community. I think we’ve really done well so far," Upham said.
Another adjustment for students and staff this year has been a requirement to wear masks while in the school building. Gov. Greg Gianforte has indicated his intent to rescind the statewide mask mandate once more Montanans are vaccinated, and he has legislation on his desk aimed at shielding businesses and nonprofits from COVID-19-related lawsuits.
Upham said Billings students and teachers will continue to be required to wear masks unless he hears otherwise from local health leaders or the Centers for Disease Control.
“I think really the proof is in the pudding. I mean, we have 14,000 plus students a day and roughly 2,000 staff a day and we haven’t had to close a school. So, I don’t want to fix something that’s not broken," Upham said.
In the district's last count before Christmas break for the week ending Dec. 12, 2020, the Billings schools saw 72 new COVID-19 cases among students and staff. The schools saw 564 newly quarantined students and staff in the same time period.
Upham said a handful of elementary school classrooms have had to be quarantined and switch to remote learning, but that hasn't happened to an entire school at this point.
"I think when you see that we’re the largest school district in the state and we’ve been able to stay in school, I just don’t want to alter anything at this point in time," Upham said.
Upham said new COVID-19 data for the Billings schools should be available at some point this week.
He also noted that kindergarten registration is open starting Feb. 1 and Billings parents should register their new student as soon as possible. Upham said Billings historically has a habit of registering kindergartners near the first day of school. Early registration is key for the district to appropriately spread staff across the city.
Click here for more information on how to register a student into the Billings Public Schools.