HELENA — As the spring semester dawns across Montana’s public school system, students and educators are continuing to grapple with challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Those challenges range widely, from lack of access to high-speed internet to limits on parental attendance at extracurricular events. But as Baker High School science teacher Linda Rost said Monday afternoon during an online panel, the mental well-being of students should take top priority in the coming weeks and months.

“We can do school too, and they can learn, but we really do need to give teachers permission to focus on that,” Rost said.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen convened the panel on the first day of her second term. Just hours before the virtual discussion began, Arntzen had appeared on the steps of the Montana Capitol to be sworn in to office, telling the approximately 20 gathered adults, children, staff and press members that she is “very humbled and honored” to continue holding the reins at the state Office of Public Instruction. In introducing Rost and the other speakers, Arntzen said the event was arranged “so we could understand your thoughts, your feelings, as we move forward.”

Mental health quickly became the panelists’ dominant topic. Michael Fasbender, a Helena parent with children at several levels of public education, said the negative impacts on students’ mental states have received some “lip service,” but aren’t necessarily getting the official attention they deserve. Bainville Public School Superintendent Renee Rasmussen said her district attempted to get creative on that front when schools closed early last spring, having teachers ride along on lunch and textbook deliveries to give students some sense of social continuity to their education. Without providing students with the social and emotional skill-building necessary for personal growth and mental health, Rasmussen added, “I don’t see how we can justify our existence or our paychecks.”

Before leaving the panel early to attend a class, Rost made a strong plea for formal training in social and emotional learning — a defined process for teaching students how to understand and manage their emotions.

“I need to know what to do in the classroom, what activities to do, how to do it, how to know the signs that a student needs help, how to talk to them, how to form rapport and relationships. That’s the kind of training we need now.”

Linda Rost, Baker High School science teacher

“We need training in social-emotional learning as teachers,” Rost said as a school bell chimed in the background. “I need to know what to do in the classroom, what activities to do, how to do it, how to know the signs that a student needs help, how to talk to them, how to form rapport and relationships. That’s the kind of training we need now. We got a lot of online-learning and switching-to-remote [training], but we really need to hunker down on [social-emotional learning], and we need that for the long-term.” 

Rasmussen took Rost’s statement a step further, noting that the mental health impacts of the pandemic aren’t isolated to students. Educators, too, she said, feel “stretched thin.”

“Today somebody came up to me and said, ‘I feel mentally fatigued,’” Rasmussen said. “I think that’s that social-emotional component. And we’re not talking about the kids. We’re talking about my staff.”

Panelist Abby Hutton, a freshman at Conrad High School, offered insight into the stresses weighing on students during the pandemic. It’s been harder to learn remotely, Hutton said. Lack of high-speed internet along her swath of the Rocky Mountain Front, coupled with the odd cell tower outage, has made it difficult for her to get timely answers from teachers. Hutton described herself as a faster learner than many of her peers, but noted that her ability to work with educators to set her own pace has suffered during the pandemic.

“I’ve noticed that my teachers struggle with the uncertainty, so they reduce the flexibility,” Hutton said. She later recommended that teachers be offered more guidance on developing self-paced curriculums.

Much of the panel focused on lessons learned during the past nine months and how to apply them in 2021. Rasmussen spoke to the Bainville school’s attempts in 2020 to actively reorient the culture around illness and attendance, from celebrating those who tough out sickness in the classroom to encouraging students and teachers with symptoms to stay home. 

One voice did speak to the desire among some Montanans to return to normal. Fasbender called on Arntzen, OPI and everyone in the state’s public education system to provide as much in-class learning as possible and to ease restrictions on parental attendance at extracurricular events — a move Arntzen publicly stated she favored during her re-election campaign last year.

Spectator limits at school sporting events and other activities have riled people across the country since early in the pandemic. In Montana, the Montana High School Association opted to postpone numerous winter competitions until early January and offer a limited number of event passes per athlete. Such restrictions vary from county to county and between school districts, and any policies have to comply with county health guidelines. The Centers for Disease Control still cautions against opening such events to nonessential visitors or spectators. Nonetheless, Fasbender said that as a parent, he’s seen firsthand how detrimental those restrictions have been to the mental well-being of students and parents alike.

“There needs to be more focus on getting parents, grandparents, family in the stands at the extracurricular activities,” he said. “We’ve got some health officers in the state that don’t agree with me on that, and I think we really need to lobby them so that they know how important that is to the mental health aspect for our kids, too.” 

In closing out Monday’s panel, Arntzen indicated that her office will continue to host similar discussions as her second term, and the pandemic, continues.

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...