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Vanessa Doane and her husband, Derek, have been looking forward to the upcoming school year for months. Their daughter Daviah, has been, too — she’s supposed to start attending kindergarten in Shelby this fall. For Vanessa, the school year was meant to be an exciting chapter of her daughter’s early education. It was also supposed to help the family scale back on their use of daycare. 

“For two kids, it’s $1,000 a month,” Doane estimated, also accounting for the attendance of her 18-month-old daughter. “Which is steep. So we were really looking forward to kindergarten.”

School administrators in Shelby, located in the county that saw one of Montana’s earliest outbreaks of COVID-19, have yet to announce how they plan to conduct the upcoming school year. That leaves the Doane family, along with thousands of others across Montana, in limbo, waiting to see how they may need to restructure their lives come August and September. 

“We’ve got to weigh the pros and the cons and kind of just go from there,” Doane said, explaining that she and her husband work outside the home, at a bank and an electrical company, and would have limited ability to homeschool their oldest daughter. She said she’s also concerned about the lack of clear school safety protocols.

“It would be nice to have some kind of a plan,” she said. “And we haven’t really heard anything.”

THIN ON DETAILS

Many districts across Montana are still deep in the process of formulating how exactly to go back to school. Gov. Steve Bullock released a rubric in early June, drafted with administrators, teachers and union representatives, for how local school districts could reopen in conjunction with the state’s phased economic reopening. The outline allows schools to return to in-person instruction under phase 1 and instructs them to do so during the current phase 2, all while providing accommodations for students and staff who need to continue learning or working remotely. 

But Bullock’s blueprint, which acknowledges the uniqueness of each district, is sparse on specific protocols and serves mostly as a list of options for administrators to “consider” when creating their own health and safety plans, including occupancy limits to allow social distancing, guidelines on the use of masks and procedures for disinfecting shared spaces. Separately, the state Office of Public Instruction released a more extensive guide for school operations in four potential scenarios depending on the course of the pandemic.

“We were concerned, and we still are concerned, about the social and emotional needs [of students]. Everyone recognizes that to be back in school in the traditional and normal format is probably the healthiest for everyone, pending the [COVID-19] situation.” 

Billings Public Schools Superintendent Greg Upham

Some school administrators have criticized Bullock and OPI for not presenting more rigorous guidance as many districts remain mired in the process of crafting detailed plans. In Missoula, a Return to School Workgroup made up of administrators, educators and school staff is scheduled to present a draft to the school district’s Board of Trustees this week; on its web page, the group cautions that any eventual protocol will require the “flexibility, adaptation, and collaboration” of Missoula’s school community. In Billings, Superintendent Greg Upham has repeatedly taken to Facebook Live to share broad updates with parents, including the district’s intention to return to in-person instruction while still “exploring remote learning” for students who need it.

“In the end, we will have 17,000 students and 33 schools,” Upham said in an early July video watched by roughly 3,000 people. “Regardless of how [we] design it.”

STABILIZING STUDENTS AND COMMUNITIES

Administrators aren’t alone in recognizing the complexity of making a back-to-school plan during a pandemic — many teachers and school staff are waiting to see how their job descriptions might change again after the initial turmoil of the sudden shift to remote learning this spring. 

“I would hold up our public schools as an incredible example of flexibility and providing an amazing service,” said Amanda Curtis, a former high school biology teacher and president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, which includes teachers and school staff. “But I don’t want to downplay this. This is a global pandemic, and what happened in March was completely out of anyone’s experience. However, now all of us who are returning do know what it’s like,” she said. “We know what works well and what doesn’t work well.” 

While details remain vague, many officials are urgent about the need to return to in-person instruction. Upham, in a later interview, said he’s been motivated in part by the roughly 30% of students who were “disengaged” in academics during remote instruction. He also pointed out that roughly 40% of his student body relies on school for at least one meal of the day, highlighting a need for services that go well beyond academic instruction. 

“We were concerned, and we still are concerned, about the social and emotional needs [of students],” Upham said. “Everyone recognizes that to be back in school in the traditional and normal format is probably the healthiest for everyone, pending the [COVID-19] situation.” 

As Montana’s number of confirmed COVID cases continues to climb, the pandemic has also made plain the crucial role public schools play in stabilizing students and communities. During the 2018-2019 school year, 4,284 enrolled students were classified as homeless, according to data from Montana’s Office of Public Instruction. Nearly 67,000 were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch based on federal income brackets or enrollment in other social welfare programs. Health officials have also sounded the alarm about the low number of child abuse reports, which often come from school counselors or teachers, during the spring school closures. And the most recent data from the state’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey indicate a concerning need for mental health services among high school students, 23% of whom reported seriously considering suicide at least once during the preceding 12 months. 

For Upham and other administrators, those statistics aren’t surprising. In the weeks following Montana’s transition to remote instruction, Billings Public Schools published a list of resources related to COVID-19 on its website — at the very top were instructions for responding to depressed or suicidal students; immediately below were locations for curbside meal deliveries. 

“We follow Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” Upham said, referring to educators and school administrators. “And that is safety and belonging first.”

EXPOSURE RISK

Although reopening for in-person instruction may help relieve hardships for some Montana families, others feel that the unavoidable increase in exposure to fellow students and staff is simply too high of a risk. 

Caryn Schwarze has two children preparing to enter second and ninth grade this fall in Missoula public schools. They were considering attending in person until recently, she said, when her husband began chemotherapy for a recurrence of cancer, making his immune system especially vulnerable. The family decided that returning to in-person education would only increase the likelihood of the kids exposing the family to COVID-19. 

“That’s when our family locked down a little bit more and talked much more seriously about the likelihood that the kids will not go back to school, regardless of whether or not schools reopen,” she said. “I can’t picture sending them back.”

I think a lot more people are realizing how critical to the community childcare providers really are, not just to the child and family who are actively participating in them, but to all the facets of a functioning economy and functioning society.”

Missoula County Public Schools trustee GRACE DECKER

But not all families can deal with homeschooling. Schwarze acknowledged that her family’s situation is comparatively privileged; she could afford to quit her job when her husband first received his diagnosis in 2016, and has since remained her family’s primary caretaker. When schools transitioned to remote instruction, she pivoted to homeschooling and identifying supplemental education for her children. To that extent, Schwarze wonders whether families who can keep their children home should decide to do so as a way to decrease density within schools and make them safer for students who need to be there.

“It’s not a hardship for me, and in fact, honestly, I felt like it enriched my life,” Schwarze said about homeschooling. “Because of that, maybe just two fewer bodies in the schools would be the ethical choice to make.”

THE CHILDCARE CONUNDRUM

As families grapple with how or whether to put their kids back in school, many community-led initiatives are trying to find new childcare solutions before a highly unpredictable school year that may include staggered scheduling, forcing working parents to arrange care for their kids on their off days. But even before the pandemic hit the state, there were not enough licensed childcare providers in Montana to meet more than 40% of the estimated need, according to research conducted by the state Department of Labor and Industry. After the state’s economic shut-down began in April, the nonpartisan research group Montana Budget and Policy Center estimated that 10,000 childcare slots were lost when hundreds of programs closed. 

I think a lot more people are realizing how critical to the community childcare providers really are, not just to the child and family who are actively participating in them, but to all the facets of a functioning economy and functioning society,” said Grace Decker, Missoula County Public Schools trustee and coordinator for United Way’s Zero to Five early childhood development initiative. “And we’re kind of realizing like, oh my gosh, it really, really, really doesn’t work to have a job and have your children all at the same time.

Bullock announced in May that $10 million in funding would go to support childcare providers in the state as part of the federal CARES Act Child Care and Development Block Grant. The Montana Budget and Policy Center has called for the governor to release five times that amount in order to fully fund childcare providers, including hazard pay, as they operate with fewer clients and additional sanitation expenses. The governor’s office has yet to commit to such funding. 

Still, advocates hope that securing a range of childcare options can help create a safety net for working parents and relieve some of the stress placed on public schools during the crisis. 

“If we actually, as a community, are in a situation where it’s not safe to have children in school the way that we did before, then we need to think about the different functions that schools serve and think about how we can deploy all the resources we have available to us to get those needs met,” Decker said. “But it doesn’t mean that they’re going to be met by the same structures that they were met by before.” 

“What we’re trying to do right now is get kids back in school, it seems like, as much as possible because we don’t really have the imagination to think about doing services in a different way,” she said.

PLANNING FOR A LONG HAUL

School district leaders have been candid in assessing their own limitations when it comes to delivering in-person and remote education as well as social and emotional services. Superintendent Upham of Billings said his district is preparing for the possibility of a staffing shortage if enough teachers and other employees opt to stay home given their age or medical vulnerabilities. 

K-12 schools in Montana have received $41 million to help cover their operational expenses as part of the $13.7 billion in K-12 funding included in the CARES Act passed by Congress in March. But education experts in Montana and nationwide have long said that the total funding needed for a robust and sustainable reopening will be substantially higher. Several prominent organizations petitioned congressional leaders in May to allocate $250 billion for K-12 and higher education, saying the “economic hardship and the grief and trauma” associated with COVID-19 will be “unprecedented for today’s school-age children and college students.”

That funding has so far failed to materialize. House Democrats in May drafted additional legislation that would put $1 trillion toward state and local governments, with $90 billion specifically earmarked for education. Senate Democrats proposed a bill at the end of June that would increase funding for K-12 schools to $175 billion. Neither plan has passed both chambers of Congress. 

In Montana, the long list of unknowns presents a daunting challenge for school administrators, teachers and families. And then, of course, there is the unpredictable nature of the virus.

“To me, it makes sense to plan as if we’re going to be in phase 1, even if we never [are again],” Decker said, referring to restrictions that could be reimplemented if the virus continues to spread. “Putting resources and energy toward creating something really supportive for children and families in a more strict circumstance than we might be [in] seems like a good idea.”

As Montana’s case numbers continue to rise, Decker said she has noticed a shift in the way school communities are addressing the seriousness of the situation — and acknowledging how extensive the response will need to be. 

“Last year in the spring, there was a whole lot of talk about how if we do this right, it will seem like we really overreacted,” Decker said. “And I don’t really hear people saying that anymore these days.”

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Silvers returns to her home state from producing Slate’s daily news podcast What Next. Before that she worked as a producer and reporter in the WNYC/Gothamist newsroom at New York Public Radio. Her work has been featured on NPRThe United States of Anxiety, The Takeaway, Nancy, and Montana Public Radio. Contact Mara at msilvers@montanafreepress.org and follow her on Twitter.