Three individuals associated with Belgrade High School were confirmed to have COVID-19 in the past week, but officials say the circumstances of those cases have resulted in little disruption.
Superintendent Godfrey Saunders said Tuesday “a few people” identified as close contacts of the patients are in quarantine, and notifications have been sent to all parents at the high school, in keeping with protocols established before school started to address such circumstances.
“We knew we were going to get some cases, and we’ve been preparing for this for a long time,” Saunders said. “We were as prepared as we could be.”
Matt Kelley, Gallatin County’s health officer, said he and his staff communicate several times a week with school officials in Belgrade and are generally pleased with what they’re seeing. Kelley said people have been staying home when they feel sick, which has eliminated the need to impose more widespread quarantines.
“The people they’ve come in close contact with is not in the high numbers,” Kelley said.
Citing privacy concerns, neither Kelley nor Saunders would say whether the COVID-positive individuals at BHS are students or staff members. But in cooperation with the county health department, schools are sending letters to all parents at schools when cases are identified, and those believed to be close contacts are sent a separate letter and contacted by a public health nurse.
Close contacts are those who have been within 6 feet of an individual with COVID-19 for longer than 15 minutes.
“Parents should know where we see a case, our plan is to communicate directly with parents,” Kelley said.
As of press time on Wednesday, no cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed at Belgrade Middle School or in the district’s elementary schools – nor had any cases of COVID-19 been identified as of Wednesday in Manhattan or Three Forks school districts, which, like Belgrade, have been offering full-time, in-person instruction this fall.
Belgrade schools opened to students on Aug. 27, though families worried about the pandemic were able to select a remote instruction option. Students were asked to commit to sticking with their selected option for a full quarter. Saunders said a survey is being sent to parents this week to ask if their children wish to change their selection when the second quarter begins.
Saunders reiterated that administrators are not surprised a few cases have been diagnosed because COVID-19 “is in the community.” Should the incidence in schools increase substantially, he said he is concerned about keeping classes running.
“If we have too many people in quarantine, we won’t be able to cover everything,” he said.
Saunders said Belgrade, like other districts around Montana, are having trouble finding enough substitutes teachers, paras, aides and custodians. A year ago, he said, Belgrade had 150 teachers on its substitute list; when school started this year, it had only 90, and many of them are also registered as substitutes for neighboring districts. Similar concerns about maintaining adequate staffing has been expressed recently by administrators in Bozeman.
While the custodial crunch is easing a little, Saunders said some staff in Belgrade are donning multiple hats, including elementary principals who have filled in for teachers when substitutes weren’t available.
“It’s all hands on deck,” said Saunders, adding that he, too, is prepared to step into the classroom as a substitute teacher if necessary.
“We’ve come this far, and we want to keep kids in school,” he said.