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Harlem schools cancel activities, stay distanced, for week

The Harlem School Board voted unanimously Monday to keep the schools in distanced learning and canceled extracurricular activities until Monday as the number of cases of COVID-19 continue to grow in Blaine County.

Blaine County Health Department reported Monday night that the county has 74 active cases, with three hospitalizations and 146 total cases of COVID-19. The county reported its first two COVID-19-related deaths over the weekend.

The school board Monday approved continuing school closure and canceling activities, including practices and competitions, to Monday, Oct. 19, to coincide with Fort Belknap Indian Reservation's current closure, and to resume all athletic programs, including practice and games, starting Monday. Remote learning will be observed till Monday for the students, when in-class learning in their hybrid model will resume.

Many attendees both in person and through Zoom said before the vote they were in favor of re-opening the schools and continuing on with athletics.

Harlem Public Schools Activities Director Laramie Schwenke said she as well stands with opening schools.

"I kind of like the idea of school by the 19th and sports (today) would be ideal, again the mental health - I'm heavy on that - sports is a driver for many things for our kids to come to school, to keep their grades up  and last spring we didn't have a choice," she said. "... This time around, all these kids sitting in here, this is the second time this is happening to them and we have a choice, I believe."

She said she thinks things can be tightened up and can continue on safely.

She said if the Montana High School Association didn't think it was safe they would've pulled the plug right now.

"I think it's a huge factor in especially looking at no cases that are tied to sports and even as far as Gov. (Steve) Bullock the other day flat out said, 'No cases have been tied to spectators at sporting events, thus far," Schwenke said. "The fact that we have a choice this time, I just ask you to please consider letting our kids have a choice. We can make things work, if not every athlete wants to come or whatnot. Let them decide. Let them and their families decide instead of us cut and dry this is what we are doing, this is what you are going to do.

"Unfortunately, to me the kids are having to take the brunt of all this," she added. "I know it affects a lot of people, I know that, but the kids in the school aspect, the athletic side they are taking the brunt of this hard for the second time and I'm just a big believer let's figure this out. We can do this. We have a choice this time around. Let them have a choice."

She said she knows the students, coaches and the community would do whatever it takes to continue in the safest way possible.

Student Alaynee Hawley said she heard someone say lost education time can be made up.

"My question is how and when?" she asked. "Lost education is not something every student will be able to make up. Every student has lost eight-plus weeks of face-to-face learning time last spring. This year if students are remote-only they have also lost another six weeks of regular learning and the hybrid students have only received eight days of face-to-face learning this year."

The numbers don't equal what students have to come to expect with learning and education, she said.

She said parents and guardians are forced to teach at home where the children are to fend for themselves.

"Teaching and learning new concepts is very difficult in this situation," Hawley said. "These kids are behind and only getting further behind. ... When will these kids catch up? How will they catch up?"

Audience member Nona Main said told the board to lift up the young people's voices on what they feel.

"While I understand we are in a pandemic and there's an outbreak in our community, again I just want reiterate what some of the other people said, that there are adults in this community, some who are front-line workers and some who are working in schools that are not adhering to the guidelines, but yet they are expecting the young people to follow the guidelines," she said. "If we are to continue in this shutdown then I hope that the adults also show more responsibility by that because they are expecting our young people to do that."

Right now, she said, the young people are being punished for the adults' lack of responsibility during this pandemic.

"That's not fair," she added. "Maybe that's childish to say, but it's not."

She said her son has been doing it and handling it well, but he prefers to be in school and he needs to have hands-on learning.

To have in-school support and in-classroom teaching would be more beneficial for her son, Main said.

Fort Belknap Tribal Health Family Practitioner Jennifer Show said sports practice and competition can increase the spread of the virus, and cited Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on sports.

"Just because it hasn't passed between sports yet, doesn't mean we (should) allow it to," she said. "Part of the way we've been controlling this is through mitigation efforts. Mitigation is what? Preventing it."

She read the guidelines to the board, saying, "'lowest risk is performing skill-building drills or conditioning at home alone or with members of the same household. Increasing the risk is a team-based practice' We've allowed that already. 'More risk is within team competition, higher risk is full competition between teams from the same local geographical area - like the local city and county. Highest risk is full competition from different geographical areas outside county or state.

"If organizations aren't able to keep safety measures in place during competition, for example keeping participants 6 feet apart at all times, they may consider limiting participation to within competition only," Show read. 

Show said the information hasn't changed and neither has the facts.

"You have to social distance," she said. "It doesn't if you are doing outside, preferably that is the way you want to do it, but if you can't maintain social distance then you aren't doing no good particularly if you don't have masks on. ... I wish I could change the facts on this. I wish I could change the facts about how transmission of this virus happens, but I can't."

"Right now, with our outbreak it is not safe," she added.

Superintendent Doreen Warren said the worst time COVID was being spread in the county, the school was closed, so that's why it hasn't spread in the schools.

She said parents can change to having their children on the hybrid model the school has been using to remote learning at any time.

If students are having trouble with devices or connectivity they need to let their schools' principals know, she said.

"I know we all want to get back to our normal lives, I know we do and this isn't fair, but I'm concerned about keeping people safe," Warren said. "I'm concerned about keeping our staff safe, our students safe and our students' families safe."

She said she did a survey Monday and 66 percent, 83 out 111 staff members, for continuing cleaning, contact tracing and working with Fort Belknap's closure, and 34 percent supported opening back up and doing sports.


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