Wednesday, October 21, 2020
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Kalispell Public Schools: District working through logistics of pandemic, quarantining

by HILARY MATHESON
Daily Inter Lake | October 17, 2020 12:00 AM

When countywide cases of COVID-19 spiked in September, Kalispell Public Schools started to experience a decline in cases, but the trend isn’t lasting.

When Kalispell Superintendent Micah Hill gave an update to the school board of trustees Tuesday, there were 15 active cases districtwide, which is down from 32 cases reported on Sept. 20 — its highest number to date.

As of Thursday, however, cases rose to 24 districtwide.

Total enrollment in the district is roughly 6,000 students and 750 staff members.

The 24 active cases break down to six cases at Glacier High School, six at Edgerton Elementary, three at Flathead High School, three at Kalispell Middle School, two at Hedges Elementary, two at Rankin Elementary and

one at Peterson Elementary.

Hill said cases still appear to be contracted outside of the school setting, and Flathead City-County Health Department has not seen spread within the school.

“There’s definitely an ebb and flow to this,” Hill said. “When one school gets hit pretty hard with positive cases and/or quarantines it feels like the weight of the world is on you trying to figure out, ‘how am I going to manage this?’ You know, if I have to pull [paraprofessionals] off what they would normally be doing in supporting students to cover a teacher in the classroom, or to cover food service, or to cover the playground — there’s just a lot of movement and shuffling there.”

This month, the school district started posting updates on the number of active cases in individual schools, differentiated by staff and students, on its website www.sd5.k12.mt.us. The weekly updates are expected to be uploaded on Thursdays.

While the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services started issuing weekly reports of COVID-19 cases in schools in September, Hill said the district’s data will be the most current and may differ from numbers reported by the county or state due to lag time in reporting information between agencies.

Additionally, the school district is posting the number of close contacts in quarantine.

QUARANTINES HAVE possibly been the most taxing on school staff and affected families. Quarantines last 14 days. are currently 289 students in quarantine and nine staff throughout the district. Kalispell Middle School has been one of the schools hit hard on this front. There are currently 91 students in quarantine, about 8.8% of its enrollment, which is down from an Oct. 6 report of 109 students. No staff are reported in quarantine.

“Teachers are killing themselves with kids in school and then kids in quarantine,” Kalispell Middle School Principal Tryg Johnson said, when it comes to teaching in the classroom and then supporting students quarantining at home.

The Kalispell Education Association is in the midst of surveying teachers to gauge how workloads and stress levels have been affected by COVID-19. One question asked how many hours educators spent outside their contracted work day on teaching duties for quarantined students. Of 254 responses, about 70% answered an hour a day. About 20% are spending two hours a day and 14%, three or more.

“Truly this depends on which schools/classrooms/grade levels have been hit hard with quarantined students,” Association President Lynne Rider said.

Johnson broached the topic of a school week with four days on-site and one day remote, or early-out Wednesdays, as a way to carve out time for staff to take care of the academic needs of quarantined students.

“We weren’t sure what was going to happen with quarantines,” Johnson said, when the numbers started to increase.

Hill and the board agreed it should be considered by the school board’s personnel committee, however.

“On first blush I do not see going to a four-day week as a viable option if we’re saying kids are going to be remote learning that day [fifth day] as well because now you’ve added on, I’m doing this in-person instruction, but now I have to prep every week for a lesson for kids to go remote,” Hill said.

He also noted the potential challenges for working parents in talking with other AA school districts using hybrid models.

EARLY-RELEASE DAYS also raise a set of concerns related to time spent learning in the classroom.

“There’s downsides to early releases, there’s downsides to anything that shortens the instructional time for students. There’s curriculum to get through, standards to be met, prepping for tests, we’re trying to give students a leg up,” Hill said.

School Board Chairman Lance Isaak said he is supportive of either measure moving forward.

“We recognize teachers put in more than their fair share of work in a regular year, let alone during these times. Personally, I would be very supportive of the initiative moving forward whether full day off or early releases on a regular basis,” Isaak said.

Outside of that conversation, the board approved a memorandum of understanding between the district and Kalispell Education Association for the 2020-21 school year that addresses unique working conditions of operating under a pandemic, such as performance of duties as it relates to remote work, mandatory school closures, making up lost instructional time, and evaluations, among other items such as paying out excess personal leave and compensatory time.

Trustees also approved an agreement that would allow school officials to be designated as deputy public health officials to assist Flathead City-County Health Department with contact tracing in schools only. This means school officials, namely building administrators and possibly nurses who opted to become deputized, would be responsible for identifying and notifying close contacts in COVID-19 cases.

Hill said building principals already do the bulk of the work involved in tracking close contacts by going through seating charts, verifying attendance and passing that information on to the health department, which sends a list back of what students will be placed in quarantine and then the district send back contact information for the health department to make the calls notifying people they are close contacts.

Once deputized, a school official will be able to do that last piece of calling and notifying families. Hill said the agreement is the same as one Billings School District is using.

As the agreement stands, it is optional to become deputized and there would be no financial compensation, but it would potentially expedite the notification process so affected students don’t come to school.

“I talked with our administrators and there were some mixed feelings on it,” Hill said. “Some say, ‘Well, I’m doing 90% of it. If I have to call seven families, not a big deal, but there are others who’ve said I’m already putting in four hours on this contact tracing and if I have to make the phone call that’s more time.”

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.