By Brandon Walker EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – At an emergency school board meeting on the evening of Aug. 6, a decision was reached by the Big Sky School District school board—the same decision being deliberated throughout the nation—to reopen school this fall. The board decided on partially sending students into the classroom once again while also including a virtual learning element.
By a unanimous vote, the school board selected a blended learning model recommended by the school district’s coronavirus task force that calls for a rotating schedule—Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Tuesday, Thursday over a two-week period—where 50 percent of students would be present on campus receiving in person instruction, while the other half learn remotely.
The first day of school is Aug. 31 and students can expect this school year to be an adjustment from the traditional school opening of years past.
“It’s a double-edged sword right. I mean you want to have 100 percent of kids in the school learning 100 percent of the time from your faculty and everybody feeling good and feeling normal and approaching school as school is supposed to be approached,” said BSSD superintendent Dustin Shipman. “… We feel good that there is a real move towards making it as most normal [an] environment for these students that we can at this time.”
BSSD has not released an official document outlining the entire learning model yet, but elements of the plan include: students and staff are required to wear masks on campus, allotted time for hand washing and sanitization practices, social distancing in classrooms with roughly only 14 to 16 students permitted at one time, temperature checks via infrared cameras, frequent changing of air filters and requiring windows to remain open at all times among other protocols.
“I think that it’s a really good model for the context because it keeps students engaged in the learning process at a safe distance and it protects our students and our teachers in that process,” said BSSD sixth through 12th grade principal Dr. Marlo Mitchem.
All BSSD staff members will be tested for COVID-19 prior to the first day of school by Matrix Medical Network—the same health care company that helped advise the school district’s coronavirus task force—through a donation made by the Yellowstone Club Community Foundation.
Some details of the current learning model are still being determined, including transportation methods and strategies and the rotating schedule for students. Athletics protocols and procedures are also still being determined while practices are scheduled to start on Aug. 14.
“I’m just looking forward to having us all back together in some fashion,” Mitchem said. “There’s a lot of work to do between now and then and so it’ll be a very busy time, but we’re going to make it you know the best opening we can in this context.”
While the blended learning model is the initial choice of the BSSD school board, it is not set in stone. The learning model will be under constant review as the COVID-19 climate shifts throughout Big Sky and Gallatin County and the school board could amend or adjust the learning model at any time, according to Shipman.
“We wanted to come up with the best, safest way to start school knowing what we know now,” he said. “Something could change between now and then. [With] that said, we’re going to be re-examining the model; The task force is continuing their work. We’re going to re-examine the model with the ability to move to a more conservative approach or a more open approach, the board has the ability to do that whenever.”
The school district’s coronavirus task force devoted roughly 50 hours compiling various learning models that were presented to the school board as well as sent out to parents and staff for feedback in the form of a survey.
Of the 30 responses that BSSD received from staff members regarding which learning model they would select, nearly 44 percent chose the model recommended by the school district’s coronavirus task force and approved by the school board.
In comparison, nearly 44 percent or 134 of 307 parents voted for a 100 percent on campus return to school with accompanying health and safety restrictions. The school board approved blended learning model ranked second among the four options, receiving 82 votes—more than 26 percent—from parents who responded to the BSSD survey.
Mitchem was grateful for the feedback and survey results BSSD received. “I think that whole process with open communication and empathy and listening is going to be really important this year you know to get through this together—to the other side,” she said.
BSSD asks for comments and questions to not be sent directly to administrators. Instead, comments and questions may be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org