The Boys & Girls Clubs of Yellowstone County's Bair Family Clubhouse remains open to club members who are homeless or have a parent working for a hospital, or who are first responders. Credit: Photo courtesy of Boys & Girls Clubs of Yellowstone County

With schools across Montana transitioned to online learning and state child protection specialists moving home visits online, child advocates are raising concerns about the health and safety of at-risk youth.

Gov. Steve Bullock ordered Montana schools on March 16, and later extended the closure through April 10. Bullock has indicated that the closure could be extended further.

The school structure is designed to provide children with stability and safety. Schools provide two meals a day. Teachers are a regular presence. Kids can count on their friends. Counselors look out for the well-being of students.

“When we take the school infrastructure away, there are questions about how we make sure kids are safe and supported,” said Laurie Bishop, director of the Montana Afterschool Alliance, a Great Falls-based organization that advocates for after-school programs and expanded learning opportunities across Montana. “The issues I’m hearing from my sector is people are genuinely concerned about kids’ safety. School and after-school [programs] help keep kids safe, whole and OK.”

So far, public schools and community organizations have done a good job of making sure children who rely on free and reduced-cost school lunches are still able to get those meals, according to Bishop, who is also a state representative for Livingston. But concerns remain about continued learning and safety, she said.

The Afterschool Alliance conducted a March 18-20 survey of its afterschool program providers across the state. Twenty-nine programs responded: 25 from small communities, and four from large communities.

The top concern was child safety, with 89.7% of respondents reporting concern about kids’ safety and support. 69% reported concerns about maintaining children’s learning opportunities, and 55% reported concern about food security for children.

In 2018, 15,300 children across Montana were subjects of a maltreatment investigation — including abuse and neglect investigations — conducted by Montana Child and Family Services, up from 10,180 in 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

That means Montana has a rate of 66.7 maltreatment investigations per 1,000 children, according to HHS. That number is well above the national average of 48.7 investigations per 1,000 children.

The vast majority of maltreatment perpetrators are parents, according to HHS. The added stress of unemployment and financial uncertainty stemming from the coronavirus pandemic could lead to more dangerous situations for at-risk youth, said Park County Health Director Julie Anderson.

“If there’s abuse, neglect or poverty already in a home, that’s just made worse by a public health crisis,” Anderson said.

And with social distancing decreasing community interactions, abuse may be more likely to go unnoticed, Bishop said.

For at-risk students especially, removal from schools and afterschool programs can mean isolation from sources of stress relief, counseling, and food security.

“School is a safer place for some than home,” Anderson said. “A lot of pieces in that puzzle were in place. Now they’re completely broken apart.”

WHERE DO KIDS GO?

After Bullock’s initial school closure announcement, Brian Dennis, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Yellowstone County in Billings, called a staff meeting to discuss whether the club should remain open. The club took a week off and then partially reopened one of its five locations, serving a fraction of the 400 kids the locations normally serve daily. 

“Our team literally had to rewrite the playbook on how you run a club,” Dennis said.

The club implemented an intense cleaning regime and focused staff on one small group of children, which includes homeless children and children of essential workers. 

But the club is no substitute for school, he said. 

“We want to connect with those kids. We want to help them through things, be someone to talk to. It’s tough, because you want to be there for them.”

—Brian Dennis, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Yellowstone County

“It’s a little bit scary, I’ve got to be honest,” Dennis said. “The kids that count on the schools, what’s going to happen to them? How far do they slide before we can reopen [schools]?”

In Havre, the focus has been on keeping children fed. Havre Public Schools are providing curbside to-go breakfast and lunch. The local Boys and Girls Club is providing dinner, said club director Tim Brurud. 

Before school closures, the club was visited by about 200 kids a day. Now it’s serving about 240 to-go dinners daily. Meal service has been an effective way to help children, but for an organization that tries to develop relationships with children and serves them from the age of 6 until they’re in high school, the lack of interaction is jolting, Brurud said.  

“We want to connect with those kids. We want to help them through things, be someone to talk to,” he said. “It’s tough, because you want to be there for them.”

ONLINE LEARNING DISPARITY

Across Montana, 30 percent of children live in homes where parents lack secure employment, making them particularly vulnerable to an economic downturn. 

Dennis Parman, executive director of the Montana Rural Education Association, said he’s impressed with the way schools have reworked their education delivery systems so quickly. 

But in some rural areas, students don’t have access to the internet, which can lead to disparities in remote-education opportunities. For example, in Glacier County, where 30% of homes do not have internet access, remote learning has been more a matter of delivered packets of paper schoolwork, Parman said.

“If there’s abuse, neglect or poverty already in a home, that’s just made worse by a public health crisis.”

—Park County Health Director Julie Anderson

Even if schools do a great job delivering education, some students may have difficulty focusing on schoolwork at home.

Anderson said that for kids without internet or computer access, electronic homework normally requires a trip to the local library or computer lab. But those are closed. Now, it might mean doing homework on a parent’s iPhone.

“How long before they just give up?” Anderson said.

The Billings YMCA has been asking students who are able to stay home, said Kim Kaiser, CEO of the Billings Family YMCA. But the YMCA is staying open for those who don’t have anywhere else to go. Normally, the YMCA sees about 400 kids daily. Lately the number has been closer to 40.

“We’re open because we’re trying to protect kids during this time,” Kaiser said. “We’ve told parents, ‘if you absolutely don’t have anywhere to take your kids, we’re open.’”

Kaiser said she is concerned about both at-risk children and other vulnerable populations who struggle with mental health issues or substance abuse who visit the YMCA for social connection.

“Those real-life problems have not gone away because of COVID-19,” she said.

Johnathan Hettinger

Johnathan Hettinger is a journalist based in Livingston. Originally from Central Illinois and a graduate of the University of Illinois, he has worked at the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, the Livingston Enterprise and the (Champaign-Urbana) News-Gazette. Contact Johnathan at jhett93@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter.