July 1 marks the first official day of the next school year, and Helena Public Schools leaders are in the middle of planning what needs to be done before classes resume in August.
On Tuesday afternoon, administrators, teachers, staff and community partners met for a weekly online discussion, on the steps they need to take to support students and families as they return to school.
“We have time to plan,” said Brian Cummings, principal at Jim Darcy Elementary School. “We didn’t have time to plan in March. We closed up in about a week.”
Cummings is the co-chair of the district’s Student Services Team, which focuses on addressing the social and emotional needs of students. They are discussing issues like counseling, mental health, access to social workers and the needs of those with disabilities.
Cummings said it’s clear that remote learning has been particularly difficult for many kids, and that months of COVID-19 restrictions have had negative impacts on a number of them. Leaders are looking at everything they can do to continue fostering connections, regardless of what school looks like when it returns.
“Looking at every family, every child, all staff – what can we do to support you if you’ve gone through crisis, in crisis, had trauma?” Cummings said.
The Student Services Team is one of about eight teams the Helena School District has set up to work on plans for starting the school year. They are each taking deep looks at specific areas, including academics, facilities and sanitization, health procedures, school operations, technology, employee training and business services.
“They’re able to really dive deep, so they’re not just hitting the superficial things, they’re really thinking about deep practices that we need to employ next year,” said Superintendent Tyler Ream.
Over the next few weeks, each of those teams will be putting together preliminary plans, then meeting with “feedback groups” – including other educators and administrators, and possible parents and community members – to refine them. The Student Services Team is set to have its first meeting with a feedback group next Tuesday.
Ream said leaders hope to be able to show parents a comprehensive plan covering all of these issues later in the summer. They are also waiting for additional guidance from state leaders.
“We want to be able to fold that into all of our processes and our planning, so that we’re not communicating something and then coming back to our parents and saying, ‘Just kidding, that’s changed now,’” Ream said. “We want to make sure that we release what we release to be as comprehensive and complete as possible.”
The district’s plans include a series of possible scenarios, to account for changes in Montana or Lewis and Clark County’s COVID-19 situation. Ream said they have outlined four rough “phases”: a full reopening, a return to schools with modified operations, a hybrid model involving some days in the classroom and some remote, and a return to full remote learning. He said they will likely have to move between those phases at various points during the year, but they expect to spend most of their time in the middle two.
“Parents should really plan to start the school year in person,” Ream said. “We’ve said that multiple times; that’s been our target from the very beginning,”
Cummings said the plans his team is working on won’t be as closely tied to the individual phases. However, they want to make sure that whatever the district comes up with will include some form of face-to-face interaction with students.
“I hope it can create some relief, that families know that we’re working through the summer, we want to be in session, and we want to see your kids,” he said.