Tiny Montana school to be among first in US to reopen

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This Monday, May 4, 2020 photo shows Willow Creek School in Willow Creek, Mont. The school with its 56 students will be among the first in the U.S. to reopen after being shut down due to the coronavirus concerns. 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. (AP Photo/Matt Volz)

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.