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Smith Valley School closes due to Covid-caused staff shortage

by HILARY MATHESON
Daily Inter Lake | January 11, 2022 10:00 AM

Smith Valley School closed Tuesday and Wednesday due to a staffing shortage and an inability to get adequate substitute coverage.

On Tuesday, Smith Valley Principal Laili Komenda said there were 12 total absences among staff members. Of that amount, seven employees were out with confirmed cases of Covid-19, one absence was pre-approved and the remainder were absent due to other reasons or illnesses.

“At this point, we would have had nine uncovered positions out of our staff of 35,” Komenda said Tuesday.

She said the student population hasn’t been significantly affected by Covid. She said there are currently four confirmed cases of students testing positive for Covid.

This is the second day the K-8 school, which serves 218 students, has been closed. Absences in Smith Valley have affected teachers across grade levels and other positions such as paraprofessionals and custodians.

Komenda said the school is reassessing the staffing situation and will make a final decision on whether or not to open Thursday by noon today. Komenda plans to notify families through the school’s phone alert system in addition to updating the school website, https://www.smithvalleyschool.org.

Emergency school closures are also listed at the Flathead County Superintendent of Schools website https://flathead.mt.gov/schools. School districts determine on an individual basis whether or not to close.

While difficult to predict when people will feel healthy enough to return to school, at least in instances where staff reported having or being tested for Covid, Komenda has used the Centers for Disease Control Prevention recommended isolation/quarantine timelines to estimate when they might return to gauge how many subs are needed.

“So we’re waiting until people are healthy,” Komenda said.

As of Tuesday afternoon, she estimated the shortage will continue and she still needs to find four substitutes to cover enough positions to open Thursday.

Often, schools will pull paraprofessionals, at times even principals or other district staff, to cover classroom teacher absences, however, this is not the optimal solution as it takes them away from their regular job responsibilities.

“It makes it really difficult to juggle everyone…,” Komenda said.

She said teachers are making preparations in case classes need to go virtual if the staffing shortage continues. While transitioning to a virtual format will be easier this time around as opposed to the beginning of the pandemic, Komenda said it’s still challenging for the young students who rely on in-person interaction.

Smith Valley School Board Trustee Jim Riley told the Inter Lake that he believes more substitutes would be available to the district with “more amicable working conditions.”

“I know of a number of substitutes that have been available.

“There are solutions [to the staffing shortage],” he added.

WEST GLACIER School has also been on edge with staffing shortages, but at this time, will remain open, according to lead teacher Krista Booher. West Glacier staff and students continue to have a universal mask policy.

“We were definitely concerned last week and the beginning of this week,” Booher said with an uptick in Covid cases following the winter break. “A few staff are out because of Covid for sure and some are waiting for testing results.”

For a small school such as West Glacier, even a few absences have a big impact.

“We only have 12 full-time staff members, so it doesn’t take a large amount to be shorthanded,” she said, noting that the rural school is far enough away not to attract many substitutes.

She said the school has one reliable substitute living in the area, otherwise, staff get shifted around or classes combined.

“But now we’re trying to keep classes as small as possible due to Covid,” she said.

When schools close it has a domino effect on other districts in the valley, Kalispell Public Schools Superintendent Micah Hill said. If a district employs a parent living in a town where their children attend school, and it closes, they may also have to call in absent if they can’t find childcare, for example.

Hill said Kalispell also continues to struggle with a shortage of substitutes.

“We had 82 vacancies this morning and 14 are not filled,” Hill said Tuesday, with about 10 related to Covid. “So we have a fill rate of about 82.9%.”

When the number of absences is concentrated in one building, which occurred recently in one of the elementary buildings, it becomes a concern.

“It’s a challenge. We’re trying to do everything we can to keep our doors open,” Hill said.

Hilary Matheson may be reached at 406-758-4431 or by email at hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com

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