A week ago, Choteau K-12 students were grumbling about their homework assignments, and high school athletes were wondering when winter would lift so they could start track, golf, tennis, softball and cross-country.
Today, they are all at home, after Montana Gov. Steve Bullock closed public schools across the state from March 16 to 27, with the possibility that the closure will be extended as the state, nation and world grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Montana High School Association suspended all spring sports and musical activities indefinitely.
At the Choteau school board’s March 15 meeting, the board unanimously approved declaring an unforeseen public health emergency for the school district, at the recommendation of the Montana School Boards Association. The board also authorized Superintendent Chuck Gameon to work with the school staff to provide education to Choteau students using whatever means possible.
Gameon said he will work with the Choteau Education Association to write language for the master contract changing working conditions for union-contract covered teachers. Once the language is finalized, the CEA and the school board will both have to adopt it.
Gameon, also the elementary school principal, and junior high/high school Principal Wendi Hammond updated the board on the Herculean efforts of the K-12 staff to convert from an in-classroom school to an online school within about 48 hours.
Gameon said the governor’s order came out Sunday afternoon on March 15, and he and Hammond met with other administrators from Fairfield, Greenfield and Power public schools to plan their response and inform parents via services like School Messenger.
On Monday, March 16, the administrators met with the Choteau school staff and told them the school needed to find a different way to instruct students for the next two weeks — or longer if more social distancing is needed to flatten the curve of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The staff has stepped up tremendously,” Gameon said. “Both Mrs. Hammond and I have just been blown away by their willingness to get going, doing things for kids, preparing, organizing over the weekend.”
Once they heard the news, teachers were in their rooms, gathering their materials and planning what they needed to do to deliver classroom instruction via the internet to every student in the school. “It’s just been amazing what our staff has been able to do in such a short time,” Gameon said.
K-12 technology coordinator Robb Wearley has been working with 3 Rivers Communications to make sure that all of the students in the Choteau school system have internet services at home and has been working to make sure every student has a device like a tablet, Chromebook or laptop computer to access the internet.
Many teachers had the skills they needed to create websites and video their lectures, and to use Google Classroom tools to allow students to submit homework electronically. For those who did not, Montana State University electrical engineering student Madison Martinsen volunteered to help, using MSU’s online offerings as an example. He worked with elementary teachers and aides to help them set up YouTube channels to post their lectures on.
Cathy Campbell, the school’s head cook, worked with her staff and OPI to get authorization to continue providing school breakfast and lunch during the closure, Gameon said. She started serving lunch and the next day’s breakfast in to-go boxes on Monday and is continuing.
She was greatly helped out by the donation from Ryan Tallmadge of to-go containers leftover from Hog Heaven, the Ballard family’s food truck, Gameon said.
The school cafeteria is providing daily free lunches to all children, ages 0-18, with the cost being provided through the summer food service program. On March 17, the school served 124 lunches. Families signing up for the meal service simply need to email the number of meals they need to the elementary school secretary at firstname.lastname@example.org before 10 a.m. each week day. The meals can be picked up curbside in front of the elementary school between 12 and 1 p.m.
Gameon told the board that he remains in touch with the Teton County Public Health Department, the state Office of Public Instruction and the MTSBA as OPI works out funding issues for things like special education, school lunch, transportation, standardized testing and more as the Montana education system has screeched to a halt and switched to an online system.
“This situation is so fluid,” Gameon said. “It’s changing minute by minute, day by day.” But, he said, thanks to a great staff, “we are in a good place” and Choteau Public Schools students are still “in class,” keeping up with their school work and staying at home. Students are able to access tutors through online services and the district’s two behavior specialists are continuing to work with parents on counseling sessions done online.
The elementary physical education teacher and K-12 librarian are also reaching out to parents, providing activities for kids to do at home and access to library books.
“We are trying to make the school day be out there for families and students. I’m very proud of what our staff has done,” Gameon said.
Gameon said the school system is continuing to communicate with parents using the School Messenger voice message system, and is sending out the same messages on the district’s website (choteauschools.net) and on the Facebook page (facebook.com/Choteau-Jr-High-High-School).
School board members thanked the administrators and all the school staff for their response.
In other business at the meeting, the board:
•Heard from Board Chairman Lane Yeager that he had received a call from a Cut Bank couple, who said they had been treated badly by a Choteau parent at the Cut Bank-Choteau boys and girls basketball games in February. Yeager said the school is writing a letter of apology to them. “It’s not who we are,” he said, and asked community members to be good fans.
•By consensus authorized Gameon to work with bus contractor Gary Passmore to provide Passmore with compensation under his contract, even though no route buses are running, so that he can pay his employees during the school closure.
•Heard from Gameon that the elementary and high school budgets are both looking healthy and it appears that the shortfall predicted earlier this year will be avoided. Preliminary figures for the 2020-21 school year budgets indicate that the elementary budget will be $100,000 higher and the high school budget $4,000 higher, based on enrollment figures.
•Heard from business manager Patty Mellinger that no one has filed for the two board positions that will expire in May, those of Mark Henderson and Jerry Stott (outlying Bynum representative). The deadline to file is later this month. She also said that the COVID-19 pandemic may affect the conduct of a poll election the first Tuesday in May, but she has no firm information on this yet. Mellinger, who has underlying health concerns, also said she would be working remotely as much as possible.
•Approved policy revisions recommended by the MTSBA.
•Approved the CHS senior trip to Missoula on May 17-18, if school is back in session by then.
•Renewed agreements with the Bynum and Golden Ridge K-8 districts, allowing them to offer attendance centers in the Choteau Elementary District on the Miller and New Rockport Hutterite colonies, respectively.
•Approved offering Hammond a new contract for the 2020-21 school year.
•Approved the 2020-21 school calendar favored by 33 out of 55 staff members. Choteau teachers will return to their classrooms for pupil-related instruction days on Aug. 24 and 25 and students will start Aug. 26. Christmas break will run from Dec. 21 to Jan. 1 and spring break will run from April 1-6. The last day of school will be June 3 for students and June 4 for teachers.
•Accepted the resignation at the end of this school year of Austin Schilling, who teaches junior high social studies and high school physical education and served as an assistant football and head boys basketball coach. Gameon said Schilling plans to pursue a music career.
•Accepted the resignation of Stewart Merja as the co-director of the CHS musical. Merja will continue to help with the production but cannot commit fully to it because of work demands.
•Added Jade Kindler as a substitute teacher, pending her passage of a background check.
•Approved a list of surplus property for sale, including beams, boards, timbers, sheets of tin and other materials salvaged from the covered structure on the elementary playground that was damaged by high winds. Sale of these items will help the district pay its deductible, and insurance is helping pay for a new covered structure. Also declared surplus were a number of florescent light bulbs and ballasts, a computer table, book shelves and file cabinets.
•Approved a leave of absence for elementary teacher Jaime Stubblefield for the 2020-21 school year as she pursues further education to become a right brain learning specialist.
•Heard from Gameon that evaluations of teachers have been finished and that the board needed to fill out evaluation forms for Mellinger in her role as board clerk.
Editor’s note: This story was written on March 23. Changes in the present coronavirus situation may have occurred by the time this story is published and distributed on March 25.