WILLOW CREEK, Mont. – A tiny public school in Montana will be among the first in the U.S. to resume classroom teaching this week after being closed for nearly two months due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In opening its doors to several dozen of its 56 students and 18 staff members on Thursday, Willow Creek School is going against the advice of some education officials and against the grain of the vast majority of U.S. schools that plan to remain closed the rest of the semester.
District Superintendent Bonnie Lower says she knows the school is taking a risk in reopening for just 2 ½ weeks to end the semester for the students from pre-kindergarten to high school. But three-quarters of the parents surveyed in this 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, she said.
“We ride that seesaw everyday — is it a good idea?” Lower said. “We’re not taking this lightly. 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.”
Lower said the main advantages Willow Creek school has is its small student size and it’s relatively large two-story schoolhouse. If all 56 students had planned to come back, the school might not have reopened. But an estimated one-quarter of students plan to continue their studies from home, she said.
Forty-five states and the District of Columbia have ordered or recommended closures for the rest of the year, according to data collected by the publication Education Week. Four others have closure orders that expire this month.
Reopening schools prematurely risks another surge of infections and “runs the risk of undoing the work of the last two months,” according to the American Federation of Teachers.
Gov. Steve Bullock gave schools the option of reopening on Thursday, after previously reopening churches, restaurants and retailers.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death. Most people recover.
There have been 457 confirmed coronavirus cases and 16 deaths in Montana, some of the lowest totals in the nation. The state has been adding fewer than five cases a day since April 19.
The state’s Office of Public Instruction has collected data from 116 of the approximately 400 state school districts, and none has said it plans to fully reopen, except for Willow Creek and a one-room independent schoolhouse also in southwestern Montana. There may be some small schools planning to reopen that the state agency doesn't know about, spokesman Dylan Klapmeier said
“We anticipated that some of our smallest and most rural schools might be able to reopen without violating the governor’s directive,” Klapmeier said.
In Willow Creek, staff and students will have their temperatures checked before entering the school or boarding a bus. Desks have been spaced 6 feet (1.8 meters) apart. Lunchtimes and class bells will be staggered to avoid too many people in the halls and bathrooms. Recess will be held on the football field or basketball courts where there is room to spread out.
Those students who can’t stay physically separated will be given their schoolwork and asked to finish their semester at home, Lower said.
“I know they’re little kids and it’s going to be a drag for them a little bit, but I think they’ll adjust,” she said.
Eric Feaver, the head of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, a union that represents teachers, said he is concerned younger children will be able to maintain the separation that's required.
“I wish they weren’t opening, but they do have the authority to do so,” he said. “Two-and-a-half weeks (of school) is not going to repair whatever instructional lessons were lost in the last month and a half.”
Feaver said he also is concerned that the rest of the state’s school districts are making proper plans now for the fall. Schools need to prepare to keep people separated, provide protective equipment for staff and have a plan for testing, contact tracing and isolation if there is another wave of cases, he said.
Willow Creek's Lower has scoured shops for her secret weapon: 6-foot-long pool noodles. She used them to measure the distance between desks, and she planned to find enough to distribute to teachers as a visual aid for their students in keeping adequate social distancing.
“It’s the handiest tool on the planet right now,” Lower said. “I swear we are going to live and die by the noodle.”