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Havre Public School Board hears plans for further re-openings

 

Last updated 9/23/2020 at 11:41am



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The Havre Public School District Board of Trustees heard during a special meeting Tuesday from Havre Public Schools Interim-Superintendent Craig Mueller about potential plans for further opening schools and from members of the public all of whom spoke on the subject.

Mueller proposed two plans that could be implemented as well as the planning that would be required to make them happen and the possible consequence of them.

The first of the plans involved moving to a schedule with all students attending in-class lessons Monday through Thursday with Friday staying a remote learning day and an opportunity for staff to deep clean the school in preparation for the next week.

The second plan would have students going to in-class lessons five days a week.

Mueller recommended that parents be allowed another opportunity to opt out of in-person learning when/if these changes were made.

He said significant adjustments will need to be made if more students return to the classroom to ensure proper sanitation is maintained.

He said seating charts will need to be rearranged and new protocols will need to be put in place to reduce traffic in the hallways and to reduce contact between students when passing in the halls including the possibility of making them one-way.

Face coverings would become increasingly necessary, he said, as social distancing would be come next-to-impossible in most circumstances were the student population to effectively double.

Mueller said the schools’ food service would need at least one week to prepare for the change and significant planning would need to be done in order to conduct lunch safely, with altered scheduling and the implementation of new rules on seating in the cafeterias.

He said a significant reevaluation of bus routes would be needed if students were to return, especially because the system is still facing a shortage of bus drivers.

Mueller said many people in the community have called the school with concerns about the quality of the online education the schools have been providing, but teachers have been able to reach out to struggling students and have been using innovative methods to improve the education and make sure students are getting what they need.

“Is remote learning perfect? No, and it wasn’t before,” he said.

He said teachers have asked to allow middle and high school to run on different schedules than the elementary schools, but in meeting with administrators in those facilities the scenario is not plausible at this time.

He asked that if a special board meeting were to be called to discuss whether or not to implement these plans that the system be allowed at least two weeks to prepare.

Board Member Ed Hill asked that a special meeting be scheduled for next week, but Board Member Brian Williams said the plans Mueller presented should first be given to the health department so as not to put the cart before the horse.

Hill agreed that that was a good idea.

After the meeting Mueller said, based on his experience, working with the health department he should have word back on whether they approved of the plans or not within three or four days, and added that working with the department has been great.

Board Vice-Chair Harvey Capellen said he likes having these plans as a buffer between the current model and a full re-opening which he thinks gives parents a chance to make an informed decision regarding their children’s’ future attendance.

Mueller also provided the board with information regarding the impact COVID-19 has had in the opening weeks of the school year and said in the days since schools opened there are now 21 students and two staff members in quarantine.

He said he recently spoke with Dr. Kevin Harada of Northern Montana Health Care, and he provided him with information he thinks is relevant to the board’s decision on the matter of continued re-openings.

Mueller said Harada informed him that Montana’s health care system is already very stressed and statewide projections for hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19 are not good.

“From a medical perspective, COVID-19 in Montana and Hill County is going in the wrong direction,” he said, referencing Harada’s comments.

Mueller said he was told if the trajectory doesn’t change, intensive care capacity in the state will be exceeded by December.

Northern Montana Health Care is seeing hospitalizations consistent with the number of cases, but testing supplies are currently adequate, he said.

Mueller said Harada told him that he believes the state and county are in a tougher position than when the schools opened.

Despite this, Mueller said the Hill County Health Department complemented the school system’s staff for all the hard work they have done planning the re-opening and following through on that plan.

Mueller said he’s grateful that one case that has been confirmed in the school system didn’t turn into an outbreak but that could change very quickly.

Members of the public, before the agenda was discussed, provided their opinions about the prospect of schools re-opening with most of the nine people who spoke in favor of immediately moving to a five-day schedule.

Marla Boyce said she believes that her children were being restricted from in-class learning and peer interaction which she said was unfair to them.

“The numbers aren’t going up, we need to make a stand here, when is this going to change when are we safe enough to go forward,” she said, “ … This is not the new normal.”

She said Montana’s numbers do not justify the approach being taken by the school system.

“There’s no body bags everywhere, I don’t see any body bags,” Boyce said.

The Hill County Health Department has reported that three people in the county have died as a result of contracting COVID-19. As of the state report this morning, 165 people have died.

Hill County reported four cases confirmed Tuesday, and both Havre public schools and Chinook public schools have reported cases confirmed in those districts.

Boyce also said people who are concerned for the health of their children shouldn’t dictate what the school system does as they have another option.

“I have an idea,” she said. “Anyone that doesn’t want their kids to go to school, keep them home. My kids need to go to school.”

Miranda Hencz took similar issue with the idea that people with existing health concerns were being catered to over the majority which she said is being silenced through fear.

“I don’t want to take away from people who have conditions, but when have we ever lived in a fair world?” she said. “Life isn’t fair… and it’s not fair to stop our children’s’ futures for the few, we need to start listening to the many.”

She requested that the board hold meetings more often and address the possibility of reaching out to community members willing to help the school with things like sanitization.

Not all shared those opinions.

Bear Paw Credit Union Vice-President Gerry Veis said his wife works for the school system so it is very personal issue for him, and he thinks the board should exercise great caution when considering further re-opening.

He said the U.S. has now suffered 200,000 deaths due to COVID-19, surpassing many of the country’s most famous wars, which is amazingly high in an age of modern medicine.

He asked the board whether they put on seatbelts when driving, or ever got tetanus shots and other generally uncontroversial safety guidelines that people live by, and asked why this admittedly unprecedented event isn’t being treated with the same kind of common sense.

“Think logically and we’ll all be safer in the long run,” he said. “Hopefully, we can save some of our fellow Americans while doing it.”

Erica McKeon-Hanson, a member of the Hill County Health Board, said she understands the difficult position the school board is in and commended them and Mueller for their work but thinks they should stay the course for the sake of safety and not straining the health care system.

“We’re doing the right things,” she said. “We’ve come this far, and we’ve only had one case. So, I would ask as we continue to do the right things that we don’t change course.”

She said because of her work with the health department she knows that one positive case can result in up to 50 contacts and the department is already doing a tremendous amount of work.

“While I would love to have my kids going to school five days a week with all of their peers, it is not the time to do that yet,” she said. “We are not there yet.”

Havre High School Activities Director Brian Kessler also provided and update for school sports, saying that student athletes now get four free tickets for events and players for visiting teams get two.

He said admission will be charged as usual.

District Clerk Shanna Flores gave the board an update about an ongoing situation at Rocky Boy Schools, which she said reached out this morning to ask for assistance with food service as theirs is under quarantine.

She said Rocky Boy Schools will not be able to produce meals for two weeks and Havre Public Schools is going to see how many it can make for them.

“We feel like we need to assist as we can,” she said.

Flores said Fridays tend to be light and they might be able to prepare a few days’ worth of meals in that time.

 

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