Billings schools superintendent weighing risks of returning to classroom

Posted at 5:00 PM, Jul 05, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-05 19:00:00-04

Montana students are expected to return to the classroom on schedule following the summer break, even though the number of coronavirus cases in the state is continuing to rise.

On Thursday, Gov. Steve Bullock’s plan for reopening safe and healthy schools for Montana was released.

Read the full plan here.

The head of Montana’s largest school district acknowledges that there are risks to bringing students back to the classroom but also other risks to not bringing them back.

“We forget as a society that we are more than just an education, that we do provide safety, food, belongings for students,” said Billings Schools Superintendent Greg Upham Thursday.

Along with those type of social issues, Upham says the direct person-to-person instruction is also an important part of the learning experience. And that while many students did well with online and home learning, many others did not.

“It's a bad math equation right now. We are going to have to estimate risk versus reward. Coming back to school is going to have some risk and we must accept that risk. We as school officials must mitigate the risk and enforce the safety to the best of our ability,” said Upham.

Some of the recommendations in the governor’s reopening plan include procedures for cleaning, mask guidelines, monitoring students for possible illness and methods to limit the numbers of individuals in classrooms and learning spaces. The plan will coincide with whatever phase Montana is in at the time with its reopening plan, which is currently phase two.

Upham admits that with so many students, it will be a challenge to socially distance.

“We can do some things to help, but at the end of the day, we are going to be in direct instruction. There will be students who are going to be in direct proximity (of) the teachers. We'll limit the people coming in and out of schools, especially at the beginning. We will try to create communities within schools that interact with each other and not others to the best of our ability,” he said.

School districts are advised to reopen under a health and safety plan developed with local public health officials. Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton says people must not let down their guard when it comes to preventative measures.

Right now he does believe that schools can safely reopen.

“There's plenty of time to slow this down before school. We just need to change our behavior to get that prevention,” said Felton.

Upham, like everyone, is hoping that the rising number of cases will slow by the end of the summer.

"I'm hoping that the virus will settle itself because as it increases, it creates more issues for us in education. And we just know how important it is to get back to school,” he said.

The first day of school in Billings is scheduled for Aug.24.