By Brandon Walker EBS COMMUNITY EDITOR
BIG SKY – At a special school board meeting on the evening of March 15, the Big Sky School District School Board announced the closure of Lone Peak High School as well as Ophir Middle and Elementary School beginning March 16. Shortly before the start of the meeting, Gov. Steve Bullock ordered the closure of all K-12 public schools throughout the state of Montana.
The school board also announced their plan to shift to an online format, according to BSSSD School Board Chairman Loren Bough. “We’ve been using and creating technology and platforms for the past five years,” Bough said regarding the district’s preparedness for the online shift. “We’ve been very fortunate to have received a number of grants that allow us to be a one-to-one school, meaning one device per student. [These are] really the favorable preconditions of moving to an online platform for meeting education requirements.”
BSSD Superintendent Dustin Shipman believes all BSSD faculty and staff are equipped for this online move from an educational standpoint. “I think they’re all ready, but certainly anytime you’re taken out of what you were trained to do—a teacher is trained to be in a classroom with kids—it’s always going to be just managing that change in the delivery model,” he said. “We’re not wavering at all from our commitment to educating students.”
The structure of the online expectations for students is still being ironed out. Per a press release sent out by the school board following the conclusion of the March 15 meeting, details are on the way: “Please be patient in the coming days as we communicate to students and families and expect each student to have an educational plan communicated to them from their home room teacher,” the statement said. “Monday, March 16th and Tuesday March 17th will be planning days for teachers and students can expect to be contacted and expect regular communication and interaction starting Wednesday the 18th.”
Gov. Bullock’s order called for a two-week closure beginning March 16 and lasting until March 27 as events continue to rapidly unfold in Big Sky, Gallatin County, Montana, and the country regarding the COVID-19 coronavirus.
The order from Gov. Bullock was made after the governor’s office recently announced the first six presumptive positive cases of COVID-19 in Montana, including one in Gallatin County. As of press time on March 16, aside from the Gallatin County case, which was discovered in a male in his 40s, there are two cases in Missoula County, one in Yellowstone County, one in Silver Bow County, and one in Broadwater County, according to governor.mt.gov.
The BSSD’s closure comes on the heels of Big Sky Resort’s announcement in a press release on the morning of March 15 that it would suspend operations on March 16.
Bough believes the cancellation will not affect LPHS graduation on May 30. “Our current plan allows for a regularly scheduled graduation and meeting of all academic requirements,” Bough said. “…We are continuing on the academic plan that we have set out that meets requirements for all students to move on to the next class and for graduation and for … earning an IB diploma.”
While the school is closed, the school board confirmed that all BSSD faculty and staff will continue to be paid as contracted, Bough said.
The school will continue to provide meals to students in need as well as expanding the offering to the community of Big Sky. “All community members, anybody who’s lost their job, anybody who’s at home with small kids … [The program] is not limited at all. It will serve whoever needs it,” said BSSD Food Service Director Lindsie Hurlbut. Tentatively, she added, meals will be offered to the public beginning March 17.
From 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Monday through Friday, meals can be picked up at the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center entrance. “We want to reach out as effectively as possible … and help friends and neighbors that might be in danger of food insecurity in the coming weeks and months,” Bough said.
Aside from classes, the LPHS and OMES facilities are closed to the public indefinitely. WMPAC, housed under the same roof as LPHS, had already announced in a March 12 press release that it was canceling the final three events of the winter season.
At this point, the school board maintains it will hold its previously scheduled meeting on March 17 at 3:30 p.m.
“We feel the governor is making the right decision,” Bough said. “Social distancing seems to be the most effective way to flatten the curve [and] we’re committed to flattening the curve in terms of the infection rates here. Our belief as a district and a board is that what appears alarmist today will appear inadequate tomorrow in these kind of pandemic situations and were trying to be proactive.”