Stillwater County superintendents hit the drawing board for a reopening plan

Thursday, July 16, 2020
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Montana public schools are preparing to reopen this fall after COVID-19 forced closures last spring, but the new normal will be different for all school districts with some Stillwater leaders hoping for a quick return to traditional in-person learning.

Montana Rural Education Association Executive Director Dennis Parman emphasized that every school district in Montana will face different challenges – a statement which holds true for districts across Stillwater County.

Superintendents face an array of varying factors such as significant differences in enrolled students, available classroom space, teacher availability, “high-risk” teachers and many more.

Parman, who worked with the governor’s office to develop reopening guidelines, recommends superintendents, “start at home first. Do an assessment of what’s going on in your community, in your county and visit with your local county health official…get an opinion from parents, listen to staff and then start going through these documents.”

The Office of Public Instruction (OPI) released its own set of guidelines, which were not compiled in conjunction with the governor’s office, but presented four scenarios that schools can prepare for depending on their local needs.

Those scenarios are reflected in the plans the superintendents will present to the county in the Health and Safety Plans.

Most of the options send kids back to school for different types of one-on-one learning, but educators will still provide remote learning for at-risk students or students whose parents feel uncomfortable with sending their child to school.

But any way you slice it “it’s going to take more time. Instruction will be cut back a bit,” Parman said.


Superintendent Jeff Bermes has a plan for each scenario to pitch to the school board, each with an exact cleaning regiment.

The first option is to continue with the remote learning with all buildings closed.

The next option would engage kids through a blended learning model where some core classes would be inperson and others would be taught remotely. Students may come to in-person classes on alternating schedules.

Bermes will also present a cohort plan that will increase capacity in the building and is consistent with the governor’s Phase 2 regarding safe group size.

This plan works by rotating a block schedule for students where teachers will move to different classrooms. These students will have lunch at the same time, recess at the same time, will move in the hallways at the same time, et cetera.

This plan allows for clear contact tracing if an outbreak were to occur and allows ample time to deep clean classrooms between uses.

The final option is to return to traditional in-person learning where masks are optional, hand sanitizer is nearby at all times and temperatures will be taken as students and visitors enter the building.

If a student arrives with a temperature, the child will be sent home.

Bermes is sending out a survey to gage parents’ perspective on reopening. The results will be taken into consideration before a final plan is agreed upon.

The superintendent is hoping for a quick return to traditional one-on-one teaching, saying it’s the best situation for students.

“It’s the best way for kids to learn,” Bermes said. “I’m very concerned that our kids are going to be behind.”

Students who will be participating in remote learning will be able to check out Chrome Books and join the classroom on a Zoom or Google Hangouts platform.

Bermes is also looking into purchasing hotspot devices through funding provided by the CARES Act, a bill set forth by the federal government for coronavirus relief.

The district will be looking into delivering lunches to students who opt for distance learning.

“No one knows what is going to happen in the future,” Bermes said. “The best we can do is have a set of contingency plans that follow if/then statements and work on the fly.”


Absarokee Superintendent Meredith Feddes plans to go forward with a “bricks and mortar” approach.

“We anticipate a portion of our community will want a hybrid or online option and we are working towards making this a reality for those individuals,” Feddes said.

She plans on temperature checks every morning for students and staff, limiting visitors by only allowing essential personnel to enter the buildings, masks will be available for those who want them, sanitizer will be available and periodic hand washing will be encouraged.

“The district has purchased sanitizer, masks, wipes, face shields, sneeze guards and individualized items for classes,” Feddes said in an email.

The plan will be presented at the regular board meeting on July 20 at 7 p.m.

An approved plan will be released Aug. 1.


John Smith acts as superintendent for the smaller schools in the county such as Fishtail with 14 students, Molt with seven students and Nye with three students.

Smith expects these small schools will be able to go back to in-person learning due to “fewer opportunities for cross-contamination.”

But small schools come with their own set of challenges.

With only one educator at each school, one positive case could spell disaster. A sick educator would put immediate pressure on Smith to find a substitute for the rural schools.

These districts also must utilize funds for paraprofessional to help meet remote learning needs for at-risk kids, cleaning and social distancing needs.

With funding through the CARES Act, smaller schools like the ones in rural Montana were given a lump sum to offset costs for computers and classroom improvements where limited space may not allow for social distancing.

The county was able to purchase no touch thermometers, masks, disinfectants and barriers for student seating areas in these districts.

Computers were purchased for students to rent and touchscreen technology became available for younger students.

Smith is looking into adding special ultraviolet lightening and an air transfer system that will increase ventilation in the classroom.

He also emphasized the importance of educating kids as to why wearing masks may be necessary, why washing hands and sanitizing regularly is important and other information about the pandemic.

With this information, Smith feels it is important for all schools in the county to open at full capacity with the traditional in-person learning scenario.


Parman, Bermes and Smith stressed the importance of parent responsibilities in the coming school year.

“We need [parents to] help,” Parman said. “We can’t be successful without it.”

Parents must be vigilant about monitoring their child’s exposure and pay attention to potential COVID-19 symptoms.

They must be available to pick their child up from school if the student presents with a fever or other symptoms while on campus.

Smith plans to send out a letter to parents explaining their responsibilities and the weight they carry.

Bermes expects a few weeks of sleepless nights as educators make decisions about how to open schools safely for Stillwater students.

“Columbus priority is to make sure that we’re providing education in a safe and prudent manner, that’s the most important thing.” Bermes said. “We’re going to be here for everybody and we respect everybody’s choice whether they want to come back or stay at home.”