By Tucker Harris EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – Students across Montana are going back-to-school—whether in person, online, or a mix of the two—sparking the crucial question: is it safe for students to return to the classroom? Explore Big Sky hosted the 13th Big Sky Virtual Town Hall on the evening of Aug. 31 featuring four panelists from all levels of education, with additional commentary from a Bozeman Health medical professional to offer their opinions and insights regarding how they are navigating the complex return to the classroom at our local and regional institutions.
Panelists included Nettie Breuner, Head of School at the Big Sky Discovery Academy; Clayton Christian, Montana University System Commissioner of Higher Education; Dr. Waded Cruzado, President of Montana State University; Dr. Dustin Shipman, Superintendent of the Big Sky School District; and Dr. Maren Dunn, a Family Medicine Physician at the Bozeman Health Big Sky Medical Center.
Breuner started the evening’s conversation highlighting the responsibility the Discovery Academy has to operate respectfully and safely with an effort to balance health concerns with the safety of their school and the greater Big Sky community. She noted the importance of relying on health professionals for information and guidance during this pandemic.
Commissioner Christian also spoke on the importance of responsibility during this transitional time. “Student behavior is going to have to represent a huge part of us to be successful,” he said, noting that 70 percent of their students live off campus. Therefore, he stated that none of the institution’s precautionary measures will really matter unless students, faculty, and staff alike take the responsibility to socially distance while off campus.
Dr. Waded Cruzado also spoke to the responsibility higher education and MSU specifically has in the greater regional community. She reminded listeners that it is not just the students who may fail to take precautionary measures, but adults as well: “I’d like to believe that it is a shared responsibility. This is human behavior; not just young behavior, and we fail every time we generalize it as such.”
“We have recognized that each of us holds the key to your health … and we have discovered that in our very way we can be agents of transformation,” Cruzado said. The responsibility is on each individual to practice the best safety precautions. She noted that this pandemic has “… shown us how important higher education is for Montanans and what a very important role [they] have to play in society,” whether that be through research, outreach, or support.
Cruzado trusts that the safety precautions from reducing the number of students in the classroom, mandating masks, and taking temperatures, will help prevent pockets of COVID-19 outbreaks. “I have been reminding students that the virus doesn’t take weekends off … everything within measure can be accomplished, but not everything will be able to be done as we used to,” Cruzado said. She noted the safe and responsible practices that will have to be made by everyone in order for the university to remain safe and healthy.
Dr. Dustin Shipman of the Big Sky School District also pointed to the measures that everyone from the school community will be held responsible to carry out: “It’s all of us coming together as a school community and as a wider community to really practice the best practices,” he said.
Shipman noted that he’s proud to have real leaders within the BSSD community and that he’s also asking students to hold each other accountable. Together with faculty and staff, this kind of self-leadership and responsibility placed onto the individual “… will be one of the keys to overcoming this and coming out better on the other side,” he said.
The final panelist of the evening was Dr. Maren Dunn, representing the Bozeman Health Big Sky Medical Center. She discussed the importance of returning to in-person classes. “The pros far outweigh the cons, especially for the younger kids,” she said, listing social and emotional skills, social support, the ability to go outside and play together, and being fed, as important ways to maintain a healthy community.
Dunn praised the resilience the faculty and staff of Big Sky schools and the greater regional community have displayed as they prepare with enthusiasm for the return of students into their institutions.
All panelists offered the same insight into the solution of keeping the return of academia safe and healthy during this pandemic—responsible behaviors at the individual level married with the safety precautions that have been outlined as students return to school. Each emphasized the fact that individuals have a responsibility to do their best to keep not only themselves, but those around them safe and healthy, while still staying in tune with our social and emotional needs.