The plans are in place, Teton County public school staff and students are adjusting and everyone is approaching a new educational schedule with a positive attitude.
In a nutshell, that was how administrators from Dutton/Brady, Fairfield, Greenfield and Power said their school districts are approaching the closure of public schools by Montana Gov. Steve Bullock. The closure to help slow the spread of the novel 2019 coronavirus began March 16 and is slated to last through March 27 but could be extended.
A key concern for school administrators on the first day was offering some form of a school breakfast/lunch. Some districts started serving food “curbside” from the first day and others the following day. Arrangements for food are being handled by school offices and meals are still being prepared in the school kitchens. Greenfield school is combining resources with Fairfield for this service. Dutton students can pick up in both Dutton and Brady and certain households will be offered delivery service. Power will begin serving meals sometime this week.
Dutton/Brady said the task is going very smoothly, serving between 20 and 25 meals daily and Fairfield serving around 36. It is working well according to Fairfield school officials, who have looked at options of expanding the program if that is needed in the future. Dutton/Brady and Fairfield schools are anticipating the number of students using the service to increase if the closure is extended.
Each district is tailoring a learning plan to best suit its needs with the overall goal being continued learning for students.
The administrators reiterated how impressed and proud they were of their staffs for digging in to find innovative ways to approach education during these uncharted times. They also agreed the response from the students and families has been phenomenal and in many ways the children understand the technology needs for distance learning better than the staff.
With no warning of the two-week school closure, most students’ text books, supplies and musical instruments remained at the school. With the directive not allowing students to return to school to collect their belongings, it was left up to staff to gather and distribute the items to the students.
Throughout last week, the school districts organized a time for families to pick up those belongings. At the same time, most sent home packets filled with assignments for elementary students. Junior high and high school students in the four schools are doing more online studies.
Fairfield school district started to make plans for the possible closure on Sunday, March 15. Superintendent Les Meyer said the Fairfield school administrators, along with administrators from Choteau and Greenfield, met for several hours and hammered out a plan “in case” there were school closures as they were anticipating. No sooner had they left the school with plan in hand did the governor make the announcement and they had to start over. Meyer felt despite things changing, that time was well spent and it gave each of the schools a basis to start from.
Staff from each school district began meeting the morning of March 16, before implementation of social distancing. They hammered out ideas on how to move forward. “The response from the teachers and staff was tremendous, as the outpouring of support from the parents and community,” Meyer said. “What was most impressive, no one was concerned for themselves. They genuinely wanted to find what would work best for the students.” Administrators from each school echoed that same comment.
“Everyone stepped up and is making the best of a tough situation,” Dustin Gordon, Fairfield High School principal. said. “We aren’t just collaborating within our school but with administrators and teachers from this area and around the state,” he added.
Power Superintendent Loren Dunk said they too are collaborating with other school districts. They have visited more extensively with the schools using the same tech service. Dunk sees this sharing of ideas of what is working and not working becoming more important if closures are extended and he hopes even in the future as things return to a more normal routine.
“Teachers are stepping outside their box. They are embracing the opportunity for professional development,” Gordon said. “Some of how they are adapting their lesson plans can and I’m sure will be used in the future.”
“The elementary staff have been complete rock stars,” Courtney Bake, Fairfield elementary principal. said. “In a matter of 24 hours they had packets ready for early kindergarten through third grade and packets and online platforms going for fourth through sixth.”
Erica Allen, superintendent of Dutton/Brady Schools, mirrored her fellow administrator’s comments, praising the staff and commending students, parents and community members for their level of support. “We are using social media, emails and school messaging to stay in contact,” Allen said. “These were all in place before this closure and their importance has shined during this transition to learning from home.” Another concern was students accessing internet. The administrators appreciated 3 Rivers Communications stepping up to help families who didn’t have internet service during this time. “The comment, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ is very true and is being put to the test now,” Allen said.
The Fairfield school has elected to go with a more structured day for the 7-12th grade students. Gordon said essentially those students will “go to school” from 8 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday in a condensed schedule identical to their previous all-day one. The district rolled out the schedule late in the week and began taking attendance on Monday, March 23.
Greenfield Principal Paul Wilson said they are using different methods of teaching depending upon the grade. “We still want to have contact and some interaction with the students,” he added.
Power is just beginning to lay out their plans but they are looking at a similar format of assignment packets for younger students and online formats for upper elementary through high school.
The four school districts each use Chromebooks for most of their students, which makes distance learning easier.
“Remote school will start Monday and I want to remind everyone that this will be a learning week for everyone, please be patient,” Allen said in her Friday communication with students. They will be taking attendance, as will the other schools in the county.
Communication with teachers will be through email and on various video communications programs including Zoom and Google Meet.
Each district varies on whether teachers will work from home or at school observing social distancing. Gordon said, following an intensive cleaning and a two-day period with no one in the building, some of the teachers will return for a portion of the day to work in their classrooms. Wilson said several of his teachers have children and will teach from home.
In all schools, students are not allowed in the buildings.
With all the positives that have been embraced over the past week, Allen said there are some challenges too. “I’m hearing how much the students are missing school and not just to see their friends, but their teachers too,” Allen said.
Gordon said this is a new adventure for teachers as well as students. In some cases the students are more adept at the technology than students.
Fairfield science teacher Skylar Steinbach said, “What is a teacher without students?”
“This is tough,” she said. “I miss my students, I miss my colleagues, I miss my classroom, I miss my routine. I may not be able to control the situation and its outcome, but I can control my attitude and how I deal with it. I am determined to make the best of it! If I can’t be with my students, teaching and connecting with them virtually is the next best thing. I am hopeful that stepping outside my comfort zone in a virtual classroom will open new possibilities. Lastly, I hope my students know they are loved and missed” — a feeling she’s sure all teachers share.
Each of the administrators said this effort is a work in progress. No one wanted to guess how long it would be before students will return to the school building, but few felt it would be by March 30.
“We are planning for a longer period and can hope for the best,” said Meyer.