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BSSD school board votes to return students to classrooms

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On Dec. 15 the Big Sky School District School Board voted unanimously to return students to 100 percent in-person learning in a three phase manner. Elementary students will fully return first with middle school students second and high school students fully returning to campus last. PHOTO BY GABRIELLE GASSER

By Brandon Walker

BIG SKY – Big Sky’s public-school students are heading back to in-person learning. 

On Dec. 15, the Big Sky School District School Board voted unanimously in favor of a recommendation from the school’s Reopening Task Force to move toward a phased adoption of Learning Model 3, a 100 percent return of students to the classroom daily. The adoption of Learning Model 3 does not eliminate the availability of an online or remote learning alternative. 

“There’s a lot of literature and opinion around COVID and how to deal with it, but there’s also a significant opinion and writing around what this particular pandemic has been doing to our students and that’s what we want to try to mitigate and remedy and get our kids back in school,” said BSSD Superintendent Dr. Dustin Shipman.

The 100 percent on-campus phased reintegration will occur in three stages, according to the recommendation from the school’s Reopening Task Force. The first group of students to return fully to campus will be kindergarten through fifth-grade Ophir Elementary students on Jan. 11. 

Next, on Jan. 18, sixth- through eighth-grade Ophir Middle School students will once again attend class 100 percent in-person. Finally, Lone Peak High School students in grades ninth through 12th will return fully to the classroom on Jan. 25.

“I’ve wanted nothing more than to have all the students back in school all the time,” Shipman said. “I have a student who I want back in school all the time, personally, because that’s what we exist for. That’s our promise to the taxpayer. … We all have some sense of trepidation, but at the same time we want kids learning in front of us.”

The school board did not establish parameters in regard to positive COVID-19 cases that would illicit a return to distance learning but can review the learning model and possibly switch to another if necessary.  The board plans to closely monitor the weekly surveillance testing results and BSSD will only quarantine necessary parties based off testing results and possible exposure.

“Schools are in unprecedented events all the time around the world with wars and famines, and no electricity and no water,” Shipman said. “… And the answer to that is coming together as a community who has the same vision for their kids.”

BSSD is currently utilizing Learning Model 2, a 50-percent remote learning and 50-percent in-person learning hybrid model wherein students alternate days learning remotely and on campus. 

The decision comes following the commencement of weekly surveillance testing of students and staff within the school who have provided consent to test. According to BSSD’s COVID-19 dashboard, just one positive test result out of 89 students and staff tests was reported—a positivity rate of just over 1 percent—in the most recent round of testing recorded on Dec. 10. As of EBS press time on Dec. 16, only four of 249 completed tests of BSSD staff and students have yielded a positive result for COVID-19.

The phased implementation of Learning Model 3 does not eliminate an ongoing campaign by BSSD to acquire additional consent from students and staff to opt in for weekly COVID-19 surveillance testing. The school board had previously established a goal of a 65-percent consent threshold at each grade grouping for the surveillance testing in order to move toward Learning Model 3.

Forty-seven percent of Ophir Elementary students have provided consent for the weekly surveillance testing as of EBS press time, while approximately 44 and 27 percent of Ophir Middle School and Lone Peak High School students, respectively, have provided consent.

At the Dec. 15 school board meeting, the board made tentative plans to hold a special board meeting on Jan. 5 to continue reviewing processes and procedures ahead of the phased implementation of Learning Model 3.

“I’m very confident that a 100-percent in-person learning model is going to be successful for everybody, academically, socially [and] emotionally, across the board,” Shipman said.

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