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Amid distance learning struggles, a community comes together

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Substitute teacher Betsy Funk helps student Scottie Rose log onto her online class in the Geyser Whitewater Expeditions building amid kayaks and wetsuits. PHOTO BY MIRA BRODY

Discovery creates learning center to support working parents

By Mira Brody EBS STAFF

BIG SKY – No matter how much time has passed, memories of an elementary school classroom remain vivid: the nametags, cubbies, colorful graphics framing every window, a chalkboard and a glass tank on the back counter with a reptile or goldfish, a mute observer to academic ventures.

A pandemic, however, compromises many of these experiences particularly the tangible, face-to-face element that is so important in early education.

Last March, the Big Sky School District board voted to move all classes to an online learning format in response to Gov. Steve Bullock’s stay-at-home order until the conclusion of the school year. 

In July, parents received a survey with five different learning models for how the school should reopen in the fall. By the time the survey closed, 43.5 percent of parents had voted for the 100 percent in-person learning model with restrictions.

BSSD sent out a poll with five different learning models for parents to vote on.

At an Aug. 6 BSSD board meeting, the board voted unanimously to start the 2020-21 school year with a blended model of 50 percent occupancy and 50 percent virtual learning on an every-other-day rotation. They also released a school reopening plan, outlining the district’s strategy for regular temperature checks, hygiene and sanitation guidelines.

Robbeye Samardich has lived in Big Sky for 22 years. An account manager at Hammond Property Management, Samardich and her husband have two kids, second-grader Parker at Ophir Elementary and 4-year-old Mateo, who attends Morningstar Learning Center. 

When schools closed in March, Samardich felt jolted. Without any sense of closure, her daughter Parker would no longer see the teacher and friends she had grown close to.

“I was extremely supportive of getting them back in the classroom,” Samardich said. “But I understood that this was not a decision to take lightly.”

When BSSD released the school models, Samardich voiced her concerns to the board, and reached out to school councilors for direction. Her concerns were not only of the emotional impacts that isolating children might have on their development, but also the logistics: Being a dual-working household, she struggled to balance distance learning with providing for her family.

“This week Parker went to school Tuesday and Thursday,” she said. “Next week she’ll go Monday, Wednesday, Friday. It’s so hard to schedule. As far as being a working parent having to homeschool … it’s hard to look too far ahead. It’s overwhelming.”

While we’ve all heard the adage “it takes a village,” organizations in the Big Sky community acted the part—they saw the need Samardich and many other parents were experiencing and made moves to meet it.

Starting this week on their distance learning days, some K-5 students will be sitting in the Geyser Whitewater Expeditions building at tables and chairs donated by Buck’s T-4 Lodge. The new Discovery Learning Support Center was spearheaded by Discovery Academy’s Head of School Nettie Breuner and Outreach Director Hannah Richardson. It’s a vision supported by a multitude of other community organizations, including Big Sky Resort, Women in Action, Big Sky Chamber of Commerce, Big Sky Community Organization, Gallatin County United Way and Childcare Connections.

Geyser Whitewater Expeditions is donating their space to the Discovery Learning Support Center. PHOTO BY MIRA BRODY

Local educators Sam Riley, Richard Sandza and Nadia Razavi came on as the team of educators, and Breuner says within 24 hours of releasing an informational flyer about LSC, they had 20 parents interested.

“I think [the program instructors] are collaborating well with our teachers and certainly we’re all part of the same childcare network in Gallatin County,” said Dustin Shipman, BSSD’s superintendent. “Instead of the students attending virtually, the students are still attending class from our school, just from a distance.”

The program currently has 29 students, and with COVID-19 restrictions in place, they can take up to 40 students per day. The teachers follow BSSD’s curriculum schedule, providing a place for the kids to learn, interact and regain that social aspect of education, Richardson says.

“It’s a great way to provide support to those working parents and helping people with the highest need, and in general just supporting the local workforce families,” Richardson said.

The program costs parents $200 a month; the rest is funded through the Yellowstone Club Community Fund. Breuner says this funding will tie them over until December, when they expect to hear whether or not they qualify for the Montana State School Age Childcare Grant, which funds childcare programs that specifically help families affected by COVID-19. 

“One of the things that has come out of COVID is this tremendous act of collaboration,” Richardson said, noting that meeting this need is merely an extension of Discovery Academy’s existing initiative. “The really cool part is just me trying remember every single person who contributed. It really is incredible the connections we’ve formed assessing community needs.”

Other families have taken a different approach. Lacey Cook, who taught at Ophir Elementary for 11 years before leaving in order to care for her children full-time, made the decision to home school her oldest son, five-year-old Tobyn, shortly after BSSD released its fall semester plan. 

While Cook says it wasn’t an easy choice, she and her husband felt it was best for the safety and health of their family with a kindergartener, a three-year-old and three-month old in the household. She also wanted Tobyn, who had struggled with virtual learning back in March, to experience the full social benefits of education. Cooke felt homeschooling would provide the option to do so within the safety of their learning “pod.”

“That’s where the concept of community really plays into it, even if people are opting to do different things, it’s by no means a show of aggression or disapproval,” she said. “For us it’s not like we disapprove of any of the systems that [schools] are implementing, it’s just that this is what works best for our family.”

“… No one received training on how to facilitate learning models during a pandemic and schools aren’t receiving additional funding right now. We need to give everyone a lot of grace.”

– Lacey Cook

The “pod” consists of two other families with similarly aged children who have made a mutual commitment to practice COVID-19 safety measures so their families can interact freely and the kids can have a hands-on education experience and maintain classroom friendships. 

The families alternate houses to give parents a break, and coordinate group field trips. They follow Montana’s state education curriculum standards with a goal of having Tobyn first-grade ready by next fall and rejoin his classmates at Ophir.

Although Cook had voted in the BSSD survey for 100 percent in-person learning, she recognizes the difficult decision the district had to make.

“We have a phenomenal school system here in Big Sky,” she said. “That’s the struggle right now with COVID … No one received training on how to facilitate learning models during a pandemic and schools aren’t receiving additional funding right now. We need to give everyone a lot of grace.”

“You’re constantly second guessing,” she added. “‘Have I made the right decision?’” 

Cook cites as another factor in her decision-making an increase in depression rates since the pandemic began and society was forced to isolate. Kids, she says, have a hard time understanding that it’s their peers on the screen, making it difficult for them to gain the same social benefits as they would playing outside with friends.

The benefits of personal interaction are not lost on Samardich and her family either.

“We are extremely grateful for the Discovery program,” she said. “A huge piece of [education] is that [Parker] gets to see her teacher every day … Miss Mackenzie is amazing. She can get right down to their level, look them in the eye and she just speaks that language of their age group in order to motivate them.”

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