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One of Montana's counties hardest hit by COVID-19 prepares to return safely back to school

Posted at 8:27 AM, Aug 18, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-18 17:39:36-04

HARDIN - In a district of about 1,800 students, the Hardin School District covers a vast area of Big Horn County, from Hardin to Crow Agency and Fort Smith, with some students living as far away as Busby and Muddy Cluster.

Located in the county with the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases in Montana, administrators describe it as "unique," and being on an island where it's impossible to compare and take notes from other school districts.

"You know, calling Sidney, or calling Dawson, or calling Fergus is completely different. Calling Park County, it's just completely different. So, it's a challenge," said Hardin School District Superintendent Chad Johnson.

With guidance from a parent survey, come the first day of school on August 26, students will either learn remotely or in person, Monday through Thursday. Fridays offer at-risk, high needs, or students who struggled with the material during the week to get extra help from teachers.

“And basically, it’s a third day of custodial cleaning, disinfecting, on that Friday so we can shut our school down that evening and it sits 48 hours undisturbed, so we're ready to go on Monday morning," Johnson said.

Regardless of that learning option, all students are getting new Chromebooks with hot spots set up throughout the district, giving students without reliable internet, the ability to download and upload their assignments, then work off-line from home.

"About one third to almost one half, it just wasn't reliable, or they're having to use their data service on their phone in order to do that, which is not feasible," Johnson said about internet service for some of the district’s students.

While scheduling has been a challenge, the district is also trying to find a balance for staff members concerned about health and safety.

"Just finding substitutes for buildings, it's going to be an impossible task. And so we're trying to prepare our classified staff, that they may have to step in. Paras, and so on and so forth, will have to step in and help support where maybe we needed subs that day because I think our list is about a third of what it was a year ago. A district this size, that's not good. It was short to begin with," Johnson said.

The district encountered a hiccup when a lockdown order was issued for the Crow Reservation. One of the district’s schools, Crow Agency Public School, is located within reservation boundaries. Since the lockdown order doesn’t expire until Aug. 31, the school will begin the year remotely.

"I've also told the school and I've told the staff, that you need to be prepared to go beyond that, because if we're looking at in terms of trends, which are not improving in Big Horn county right now, nor are they on the reservation, that order is going to be extended. And so, those teachers, that school is going to be prepared to continue online remote servicing for that student body, during that entire time," Johnson said.

One department feeling confident in this new normal is the school nutrition department.

"I think for school nutrition, you just have to improvise," said Patrice O’Loughlin, the director of school nutrition.

And that's exactly what they did.

When the pandemic hit, they sprang into action with grab-and-go breakfast and lunch, mirroring a program they usually do a different time of the year.

"It also helped us when we did close. We had that structure in place and so we just kind of moved into our summer meal program, knowing how we deal with that, the infrastructure was already there, we just started it a little early in March," said Marlo Spreng, the director of school nutrition in training.

Safe food handling is another measure they already had in place.

"We do have the benefit of being used to that kind of environment. Some of the practices that are already in place from preparing those meals, teaching staff how to handle food, the sanitation issues, all of those things are already in place for us," O’Loughlin said.

Once all parents decide on a learning method, the school nutrition department will then determine which serving methods to use, whether it be in the classroom, in the cafeteria, curbside, or bus deliveries.

"I expect we'll do well with whatever happens. If the school shuts down and we go back to curbside, then we'll just handle that," O’Loughlin said.

Doing what they can for time being, and always planning ahead seem to be the common goals for district leaders.

"In my mind, I've kind of got the worst figured out, and I'm telling our staff, you have to be prepared for at least school closure, if not complete district closure at some point this fall. At least I feel like I think I'm being realistic, preparing them for that. If it doesn't happen, great. I hope it doesn't happen. But if things were to continue, we're going to be ready for that," Johnson said.

The Hardin School District also plans to offer mental health assistance to teachers and students through an app on their smartphones.

Once they show interest in receiving help, they'll begin working with the Bighorn Valley Health Center.

Classroom dividers and partitions, along with other devices, are en route to the school district to ensure students can social distance and safely participate in classes.