BILLINGS — After remote learning enrollment came in lower than expected, Billings middle and high school students will have a block schedule in an effort to better place students in cohorts, Billings School District 2 Superintendent Greg Upham said Monday.
Upham said 2,300 of the Billings Schools approximately 17,000 students are signed up for remote learning. Administrators previously estimated that number to be around 5,000 in late July. More students in the physical classroom influenced the decision to move to block scheduling, Upham said.
“It will be the same amount of students in a classroom, except there will be fewer periods throughout the day. It basically cuts the school day in half as far as the teacher to student ratio for three periods per day versus six periods per day," Upham told school board trustees.
Billings middle and high school students usually have six class periods per day. The block schedule extends the length of class periods to two hours and students will attend three classes per day.
Middle school students will still have six total classes, but they will attend three of them on an every other day basis, or an A/B schedule. For example, a student may have math, science and social studies on Monday. Then on Tuesday, they would attend gym, wood shop and English before the cycle starts over on Wednesday.
High school students will also keep their six total classes, but classes will be taught in two-week blocks. The high school student will take three classes for two weeks, then their other three classes for two weeks.
High schools will also have a one hour lunch period with an open campus for students to leave and eat elsewhere if they wish. The lunch period also offers a time for custodians to disinfect classrooms.
The block scheduling decision was made with input from the Billings Education Association, or local teacher's union.
Union President Rachel Schillreff said high school teachers wanted cohorts of students. The option of an A/B schedule allows for greater mixing of students and teachers, thus increasing the risk of disease transmission.
“What we heard from teachers is that the A/B schedule, they were still going to see the same amount of students within a 48 hour period and they wanted to create an actual cohort where you are with them. Is it ideal? I’m just going back to we had to balance safety versus education. It’s not the perfect learning model, but it at least creates more safety, I think, for our staff and our students," Schillreff said.
Upham said during a six class period day, teachers see around 100 students per day in the larger schools. With the high schools on a block schedule, teachers will see less than 50 students per day.
The teachers union asked that Upham would commit to a semester of the block scheduling before making major scheduling changes.
“We will evaluate this as we move forward. The teachers asked that we commit to this for a semester. I’m totally supportive of that, but that doesn’t mean that we won’t evaluate as we move through it," Upham said.
Part of the reason for the two week teaching period for high school classes was ensuring students still had access to vocational classes at the Career Center. High school students typically spend either a half or a full day at the Career Center.
"Instead of being there a half a day, they will be there for a full day, but their opportunities still exist. We don’t take anything away from those kids in relation to the career center,” said Randy Russell, K-12 executive director of school leadership.
Middle schools have the A/B schedule because there isn't enough space in lunch rooms to physically distance school populations, Russell said. Middle schools will have three lunch periods per day.
"Those kids don’t leave campus. They’re in that building. We need to minimize the number of students at lunch in that space," Russell said.
Trustee Rusell Hall had doubts about learning retention in high school students for classes like math if they have to take two weeks off.
"I don’t think that we’re going to find the benefits of reducing our cohort will override the detriment for learning loss. I don’t support this at all. I’m glad it’s in draft form because I think we need to scratch this. I’m now going to recommend to at least my son who’s a junior, that he now switch to online," Upham said.
For remote students, their start of school date has been moved up to Aug. 28 from the previously scheduled date of Sept. 8.
Remote students can pick up their devices between Aug. 19 - 22 and teachers will have training on Aug. 24 - 28.
To learn more about the plan for Billings students at school in 2020, visit the district's web site by clicking here.