BILLINGS — With the current school year not quite wrapped up, Billings administrators are looking ahead to 2021-22 and hope to have plans for summer school, remote learning, high school graduation and a new draft school day schedule ready to roll out in April, Billings School District 2 Superintendent Greg Upham said Tuesday.
The goal is for the district to release sometime in April a package of dates to remember and course offerings pertaining to summer school, remote learning, and possible school day schedule, Upham said.
Upham said administrators are considering keeping some sort of block schedule into next year. A block schedule is designed to have fewer classes per day for longer periods of time. During the pandemic, this limited student interaction between classes.
For the current school year, students in middle and high school have been attending their six total classes in a block schedule. Middle school students have attended three of their classes every other day. High school students have attended three of their classes for one week, then the other three classes the next week.
Upham said a survey has gone out to students and teachers to gauge the appetite for block scheduling. In the high schools, so far 60 percent are in favor of keeping some sort of block schedule. In the middle schools, 57 percent were against keeping block scheduling.
Over the course of the year, Upham said he's heard the pros and cons of a block schedule from teachers and students.
On the plus side, block scheduling allows for more time spent in an individual class, and some students said the burden of homework is easier. The block schedule also means less of a travel headache for students attending the Career Center, the district's technical education campus that students in regular years would spend a half or full day attending.
Another plus is block scheduling calms down the mood in the building with less movement between classrooms, Upham said.
"A big piece of it was our administrators who said that their buildings were calmer all the way from middle through high school. With as much anxiety and depression and mental health issues that we've seen in our schools, and they've rose significantly over the last 15 years or so, when they said that, it really got all of our attention. We really wanted to make sure that we take a look at the serious advantages that putting a block in to address COVID gave us," Upham said.
On the downside of block scheduling, some teachers and students said two hours in one class is too long, risking the student's attention.
"It takes training for teachers to use the time that's effective for them and then get through the curriculum. We have courses that we have to get to with content. Critical concepts is the term we use. But learn the material. We have 180 days to do it, which I've been critical of for students who struggle with their learning. They need extra time, but it is what it is right now. We're taking all those factors into consideration," Upham said.
If the district opts to continue block scheduling into 2021-22, Upham said the schedule's effectiveness will be evaluated on a regular basis. There's nothing stopping the district from switching back to a six-period class day in the future.
Plans are also in the works for K-12 summer school. Billings high schools are usually the only ones to offer summer school to allow students the chance to re-earn credits from previously failed classes that are required for graduation. This summer will be the first time some sort of summer school will be offered to the entire student population
For grades K-8, administrators are looking to offer a six-week summer school program that runs four days a week from 8 a.m. to noon. Elementary school students will focus on reading and math while sixth through eighth graders will focus on reading, math and science.
The district expects to see about $12 million in federal relief money through the last two federal COVID-19 relief bills passed by Congress. Upham said the federal money must be spent within two years, so hopefully a similar summer school program can be offered in summer 2022.
Upham also gave an update on the tentative plans for high school graduation. Last year, with the COVID-19 pandemic in full swing, it was uncertain if seniors would have much of a graduation at all. In the end, students were still recognized at the usual venue- MetraPark's First Interstate Arena.
Upham said the current plan is to hold graduation at the First Interstate Arena, and each student will be allowed six guests. Students will be required to wear masks.
School staff are working with MetraPark to ensure all students in the three separate ceremonies for the Billings high schools can fit on the arena floor while still allowing an appropriate amount of physical space between each student, Upham said.
On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control released new physical distancing guidance to the nation's K-12 schools, lowering the physical distance to three feet between students as long as there is "universal masking" and no high COVID-19 transmission in the school.
The new CDC guidance will help with the graduation planning, Upham said.
Upham said the plans for graduation are still tentative and students could be allowed more guests, depending on the status of the pandemic and recommendations from local health professionals.
Details on whether a remote learning platform will be offered next year are still in the works, Upham said. The status of the pandemic and funding will be factors in the decision.
Some COVID-19 restrictions at the Billings schools are loosening up, Upham said. Starting in March, the district allowed in-town field trips, school volunteers, guest speakers and foster grandparents to come back.
Upham described a conversation he had on the phone with one foster grandparent itching to get back.
"She said, okay, enough is enough. She said, 'I'm vaccinated. I'm ready to go and the virus is down. So, hey buddy, get me back in the school.' So we said absolutely, we want you back," Upham said with a smile and laugh.
When new COVID-19 cases started dropping in Yellowstone County in February, Upham put a plan in place to bring the schools into a "transitional mode," with a goal to be as close to normal by May.
"I really want to start the school year like we'll start the school year if (the pandemic) will allow us to," Upham said.