Small Montana School Among First in US to Reopen Under Phased Plan

'How they open schools and how learning takes place is up to them,' state officials said
May 5, 2020 Updated: May 5, 2020

A tiny public school in rural Montana will be among the first in the United States to resume classroom teaching this week under the state’s phased “Reopening the Big Sky” plan.

Dozens of Willow Creek School’s 56 students and 18 staff are expected to show up at Thursday’s opening bell.

Beginning May 7, all schools in Montana have the option to reopen under the state’s phased approach (pdf) to restoring normal life. Gov. Steve Bullock, in an April 22 directive (pdf), made Montana the first state under a shutdown to give schools a specific calendar day for an optional reopening, with the final decision left to the discretion of the local school board.

State guidelines, called Reopening Montana Phased Approach (pdf), advise schools on social distancing and other arrangements to ensure safety to staff and students amid the outbreak of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, the novel coronavirus that emerged from China and causes the disease COVID-19.

“Consider use of face coverings by all staff and students,” the guidelines say, and advise canceling extra-curricular activities.

Education officials say with its small student size and relatively large two-story schoolhouse, Willow Creek School has the means to operate without violating state directives.

Desks will be spaced 6 feet apart, temperatures will be checked upon arrival, and any child not following social-distancing guidelines will be sent home, officials said.

District Superintendent Bonnie Lower said 6-foot-long foam pool noodles have helped staff arrange the school space for social distancing and will serve as visual cues in monitoring compliance once students and staff hit the classrooms.

“It’s the handiest tool on the planet right now,” Lower said. “I swear we are going to live and die by the noodle.”

Epoch Times Photo
Willow Creek School in Willow Creek, Mont., on May 4, 2020. (Matt Volz/AP Photo)

A state agency—the Office of Public Instruction—has collected data from 116 of the approximately 400 state school districts and said that only Willow Creek and a one-room independent schoolhouse in southwestern Montana plan to fully reopen.

“We anticipated that some of our smallest and most rural schools might be able to reopen without violating the governor’s directive,” said Dylan Klapmeier, an agency spokesman.

Klapmeier added there may be some small schools planning to reopen that the state agency is not aware of.

Despite the risk, most parents believe they are making the right choice for their children.

Three-quarters of the parents surveyed in Willow Creek, a farm and ranching community with a population of 250, want their kids to catch up on their studies and experience a little normalcy before the summer break, Lower said.

“We ride that seesaw everyday—is it a good idea?” she said. “We’re not taking this lightly.”

She said if all 56 students at Willow Creek had planned to come back, the school might not have reopened but around one-quarter plan to continue their studies from home.

“We don’t want people to think we’re being irresponsible by making this choice. We’re trying to do what we feel is in the best interest of the students,” she added.

Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, told Education Week in an interview on May 5 that she trusts local school leaders to make the right choices.

“How they open schools and how learning takes place is up to them,” she told the publication.

Forty-seven states, four U.S. territories, the District of Columbia, and the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) have ordered or recommended school building closures for the rest of the academic year, according to data collected by Education Week.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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