By Gabrielle Gasser EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – After an uncertain year featuring different learning models and adaptation in the face of a constantly shifting pandemic landscape, the Big Sky School District is returning Ophir Middle School and Lone Peak High School to one hundred percent in-person learning.
Ophir Elementary School returned to 100 percent in-person learning on Jan. 11, 2021 and, after a delay, OMS returned on Feb. 9. LPHS is set to return on Feb. 15 at which point the entire district will be operating under Learning Model 3.
The return to in-person learning is made possible by the efforts of many, and in particular, by the Back to School task force created by the school board in March of 2020 to tackle the challenges presented by the pandemic head-on.
After schools across the county were ordered to close in March of 2020 by Gov. Steve Bullock, teachers, administrators and technical support staff at BSSD met and worked on a plan to reopen to 100 percent online learning.
BSSD finished the 2019-2020 school year with online schooling and during the summer of 2020, the task force and school board worked on creating four different learning models and a survey was sent to parents so they could vote on which model they preferred. In August of 2020, a school reopening plan was shared with parents detailing the decision to reopen with Learning Model 2. This learning model featured 50 percent in-person and 50 percent virtual learning with students sorted into rotating pods.
Now, the school is moving to Learning Model 3, which includes 100 percent of students on campus Monday through Friday during regular school hours. When possible, social distancing guidelines will be adhered to, and, if not possible, plexiglass will be erected as a barrier between students at their respective desks. Additional precautions include staff and administrators monitoring hallways between classes, limiting public restroom use, and that students will never share materials, according to the task force report shared at a Jan. 19 school board meeting. In addition, students will wear masks and those who have opted in to the testing program will be tested weekly.
Whitney Littman is a trustee on the school board as well as the chair of the task force. Along with Littman, the task force included Matt Jennings, another board member, as well as school administrators, teachers and parents. Littman estimated the task force started with eight members and has expanded as necessary.
The task force met weekly since March of 2020 with the goal of creating new strategies and policies to address COVID-19, and ultimately, return children in the district to in-person learning, Littman said.
“There has been incredible collaboration across the district,” Littman said. “We are so fortunate to have the leadership that we do. In terms of our administrators, between Brittany Shirley at the elementary and Marlo Mitchem at the middle school and high school, and then Dustin Shipman as the superintendent, they make a good team. These are challenging times managing federal, state and local mandates and then many personal emotions regarding health. They all work well together and just have a great ability to get people together and get people motivated and working towards the greater cause, which as we all know, is educating the students in this district.”
A large factor in the school’s ability to reopen has been weekly COVID testing of staff and students.
Originally, the school was using a company called Picture Genetics for their surveillance testing. Then, when the surveillance testing program organized by Big Sky Relief began, Loren Bough, the chair of the school board, was able to arrange for the school to participate in the community-wide surveillance testing program.
According to Littman, BSSD is the only school district in the state of Montana that has a weekly surveillance testing program and the data from testing has been a huge piece of the puzzle that has been reopening the school to in-person learning.
Currently, 76 percent of OES has opted in to weekly testing, 75 percent of OMS, 64 percent of LPHS and 91.5 percent of all district staff have opted in. In addition to testing data, student input has also informed actions taken by the task force.
Madison Strauss, a senior at LPHS joined the ranks of the task force in December of 2020 and has served as a liaison between the student body and the school board. Strauss is a member of the LPHS chapter of the National Honor Society as well as Student Council and Interact Club among other extracurriculars. Strauss explained that she served as an advocate for the student body as well as a conduit for information to inform the student body what the school board was doing.
“I think that it is extremely important for the students to be involved in the decision-making process because they are the ones that are most affected,” Strauss said in an email. “It is important for the faculty and decision-making authorities to know how the students are feeling and how they are reacting to the changes being made. It is important to include the perspective of the students and to think about how we might react. We could include some perspectives or ideas that some adults might not have thought about.”
Now that the dates are set and the measures are in place for students to return to 100 percent in-person learning, the task force will take a hiatus. According to Littman, they collectively decided that it is best at this point to allow the school’s administration to do their job and execute the plan put in place.
As a mother with kids in the district, Littman expressed excitement that they all get to return in-person and noted that her eighth-grade boy still hasn’t met some of the other kids in his grade.
“I’m so thankful that they’re going to have an opportunity to finish out the rest of the year in school,” Littman said. “The events and traditions that happen here are life experiences, to be referenced forever. I want these kids to talk about ski days, the Washington D.C. trip, Expedition Yellowstone, prom, etc., not remote learning and COVID. I hope we can get back to that place soon.”
The focus, according to Littman, has always been on providing the children in the district with the best possible education. She went on to express her appreciation of everyone who has made the return to 100 percent in-person learning possible.
“I can’t say enough of the district: students, parents, teachers, staff and everybody in the community,” Littman said. “It’s so amazing to be part of this group, because everybody’s response has been so collaborative in the best interest of safety and education.”