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As students across Montana begin a fall semester shrouded in pandemic-induced unpredictability, the leading question on the minds of teachers, parents and schoolchildren alike is how different one day might look from the next. It’s a maddeningly tricky line of inquiry, and one that touches on multiple corners of every community, from childcare to the classroom to a family’s pocketbook.

Two back-to-back panels of experts, in a conversation with Montana Free Press reporter Mara Silvers, attempted to unpack the myriad education-centric concerns raised by the pandemic during an MTFP-organized virtual forum Aug. 19. Panelists quickly established that the coronavirus has, in large part, compounded existing challenges when it comes to adequately serving the needs of Montana families.

According to Xanna Burg, coordinator for the nonprofit Montana KIDS COUNT, more than 164,000 children age 12 and under require some form of childcare in Montana. Even before COVID-19, Montana was one of only five states that met less than half of that demand. In the wake of Gov. Steve Bullock’s stay-at-home directive this spring, Burg said, slots at licensed childcare facilities were slashed by 10,000.

“Last week, the governor did announce $50 million in funding to maintain and expand childcare in Montana,” Burg added, “to help alleviate the challenges children and families are facing around childcare needs.”

The forum’s first panel focused heavily on this issue, with Tim Brurud, club director at the Boys & Girls Club of the Hi-Line, explaining that funding and physical space have historically been barriers preventing his organization from fully meeting local demand. The club was able to step up during the initial days of the pandemic, he said, serving 300 meals a day through a community meal program. And it was able to provide limited summer activity services for kids. When the club opened registration for fall services, the continued demand was made evident by parents signing up at midnight or 1 a.m.

“There’s definitely a need out there,” Brurud said, “and unfortunately, the capacity is cut by half.”

Several panelists offered their views not just as representatives of various organizations, but as parents themselves. The pandemic thrust people with children into a sudden and chaotic reality, recalled Havre’s Joanna Skiff, mother of a 7-year-old daughter and vice president of operations for Independence Bank. Educating and entertaining children stuck at home while also working remotely was a daunting task, one she saw written on the faces of coworkers on the mornings she went to her office.

“It was always a fight, it was always stress, it was not the best season for kids to be outside,” Skiff said. “Every parent that came to work was stressed out, and it was showing in every aspect of our lives.”

With schools opening in the fall, parents, educators and administrators face a challenging juggling act. Childcare programs must meet families’ needs while also offering whatever assurances they can regarding the health and safety of the kids in their care. As Sarah Krumm, a parent and after-school program coordinator for Greater Gallatin United Way, said, “It’s a childcare issue, but really it’s a child safety issue that we’re looking at right now. How do we ensure each child has a safe environment to go to?”

Schools are facing a similar quandary, and that topic dominated much of the second part of the discussion. 

Scores of Montanans have pressed the state and local school districts for concrete plans on how the first full academic year of the pandemic will be handled. But School Administrators of Montana President Dale Olinger confessed that as frustrating as it may be, a concrete plan just isn’t possible. The best schools can do when faced with all the “ifs” and “maybes” that come with a pandemic is to chart the best path forward based on what they know at the time, and be ready to adapt as new information comes to light.

“It’s going to be kind of a teeter-totter in this age,” said Billings Education Association President Rachel Schillreff. “Sometimes our decisions are more geared toward safety than they are maybe on the optimal education practices, but we know that we want to have students in school, we know that they do their best learning when they’re in school.”

Despite the uncertainty and frustration, increasingly robust collaborations between schools and community organizations are leading to some novel approaches. Krumm said Greater Gallatin United Way has looked into piloting a series of smaller programs that would disperse teachers and classrooms across the community to serve the estimated 13 to 30% of young children that require full-time childcare. In Missoula County, school board trustee Grace Decker said mental health and speech and language professionals and community groups such as the Missoula Writing Collaborative and SPARK! Arts have reached out to the district to discuss how they might contribute. One possibility is to set up remote learning hubs, locations where students could come together — at a distance — for access to Wi-Fi and food. Decker likened the idea to an internet cafe tailored for students’ studying needs.

Ultimately, though, the consensus among panelists was that there isn’t likely to be a clear path forward any time soon. Decisions will have to be made hour to hour and day to day, and discussions about how best to meet the needs of Montana’s children and their parents will, by necessity, be ongoing.

“Each new step we’re taking unpacks a whole new set of questions,” Decker said.

WATCH THE DISCUSSION:

Host

Mara Silvers

Reporter

Montana Free Press

Introduction

Xanna Burg

Coordinator

Panel #1: Parenting, Working and COVID-19

Sarah Krumm

Parent, Coordinator

Tim Brurud

Club Director

Joanna Skiff

Parent

Havre, MT

Panel #2: Preparing for Back-to-School

Rachel Schillreff

President

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

USEFUL LINKS

RELATED MTFP REPORTING


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Alex Sakariassen

Freelance writer Alex Sakariassen has spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics, and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, Sakariassen splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact Alex by email at alex.sakariassen@gmail.com.