More details released Wednesday about how Billings kids will head back to school

Posted at 3:05 PM, Jul 29, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-30 12:40:08-04

BILLINGS — Billings School District 2 Superintendent Greg Upham revealed at a Wednesday board meeting more of the plan to get students back to school, including what courses are planned for online, grading, and school sanitation and others.

“People need to feel safe and need to feel normal as we can. As we know, no one is going to be able to make the virus go away. We are going to have to deal with it and we are dealing with it. We’ll do the best we can. Hopefully, we will offer two (educational) platforms that allow people the safety that they need,” Upham said.

Read the full plan here.

The plan is in draft form and may change before the school year starts, Upham said.

"It is a live document that is in draft form, and I want feedback from our administrators, our teachers and our trustees before we would put anything out for a final review," Upham said.

Billings parents are required to choose between either in-person or online schooling for their students for the entire year. Becky Carlson, a former teacher at Blue Creek School for 10 years, started the job as administrator of remote learning on Monday. She will oversee the roll out of the online classes.

She's crafted an enrollment request form for parents to fill out so the district can make choices for staffing. That document can be accessed through the parent portal on PowerSchool, the district's online grading program. The form should be available on Friday, Carlson said. Aug. 14 was announced as a soft deadline for parents to fill that form out.

That enrollment request form will also inform parents of the district's expectations for them to help out with online learning. Carlson's examples of parent expectations include: making sure the student adheres to the student code of conduct, the parent promotes active engagement in classes and the process is a parent/family commitment with the partnership of teaching staff.

Carlson said she is looking towards both synchronous and asynchronous styles of online learning. Synchronous online classes would be taught similar to traditional classes, with all the students logging on at the same time to hear the teacher speak. Asynchronous classes could be worked on at the students' pace, completing assignments or group projects in a scheduled format.

The district has received many public comments lamenting the fact that parents will have to choose online or in person. Upham said it would be a monumental task to switch schedules around, but he will look at the COVID-19 situation in the community around December to look at possible changes.

Another thing working in the district's favor is that the amount of students and staff requesting online learning is about the same, based on a survey conducted last week. Upham said about 30 percent of the student populations across all grades is expected to request online learning, or about 5,000 students. Upham said about 200 teachers would be required to staff the online students.

"That’s a significant staffing issue. That’s over 200 teachers alone that could or will be impacted by that. That’s not a bad thing, that’s actually a good thing because in (the Billings teachers union) survey, roughly 21 plus percent requested to have remote-type opportunities. That helps us," Upham said.

To help the online students, Upham said there will be more structure than was experienced by families and teachers at the tail end of last year. Upham spoke of teachers who would be awake as late as 11 p.m. helping students that would wake up at 5 a.m. to help another before their parents went off to work.

For online students, there will be fewer course offerings compared to in-person school. Upham said many advanced placement or vocational classes are almost impossible to teach online due to the mandated lab components. But if an online student's health conditions allow, Upham said the district will work to try and enroll them in the classes they want that are only offered in person.

In the physical classroom, masks will be required for a majority of a student's day. Building principals will be responsible for establishing cohorts in each of the schools and making sure they mingle to the least extent possible.

Upham had Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton answer board members questions at the meeting. Some board members and members of the public asked about passing periods in school hallways being a source of COVID-19 spread.

Felton said the CDC definition of a close contact is when someone spends 15 minutes or more consecutively within six feet or less of one person. So, as long as students are masked during passing periods, that mitigates the risk of spread.

Felton spoke on the lack of temperature checks that will be found before students enter the buildings. He said the temperature checks would mostly serve to bottleneck students in slow-moving groups, and only one-third of people who come down with COVID-19 ever show a fever.

“It is not an absolute fail safe," Felton said.

The physical schools will also operate in a "restrictive mode," only allowing in essential staff. Upham said this includes no large gatherings, no field trips, no open houses and no guest speakers.

“Anything that creates a mix we don’t have to have, we don’t want," Upham said.

Sanitation procedures have massively changed since last school year. Scott Reiter, executive director of facilities service, spoke to all the changes his team has made over the summer.

He said staff have been checking ventilation and heating systems to make sure they are in top condition and changing to a different style of air filter across the district. Staff are also increasing filter cleaning to four times a year, instead of two, and will be checking frequently on filters that have more air pass through than others.

The times that the ventilation systems will be running has also extended. Usually, the systems are run as little as possible for cost savings. This year, the systems will run an hour earlier than usual and run until all students have gone and the last custodian has left the building.

Custodians will now sanitize classrooms twice a day, once after students leave and once at mid day. Reiter said the increased cleaning will present a challenge as custodians work around school schedules. Reiter said it takes on average about four minutes for one classroom to be disinfected.

Also on the sanitation front, the district has purchased one pump-bottle disinfectant sprayer for every classroom for anyone to use at their convenience throughout the day along with custodians. Custodians will get the help of 36 electrostatic disinfecting sprayers with more scheduled to arrive in October.

This is all just a small portion of the procedures that administrators, teachers and students will adhere to starting Aug. 24. Keep an eye out for Q2's Safely Back To School segments over the coming days, where reporters will break down aspects of the plan in more detail.