The following is an update this story:
Students in Manhattan and Three Forks will return to school full time this fall if the school boards in both districts accept the recommendations of their superintendents next week.
Manhattan’s reopening plan, posted on the district’s website, states students’ schedules will be similar to what they were prior to when schools shut down abruptly in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a video address to the community posted on the Three Forks schools website Wednesday, Superintendent Jeff Elliott said students will return to school five days a week, with early release at 11:10 on Fridays.
Both districts are offering a distance learning option for families who choose not to send their children back to the classroom. Parents in Manhattan are being asked to choose their preferred option by Aug. 14 and commit to it through the first quarter.
Parents of middle school and high school students in Three Forks who opt for the distance learning option will be asked to commit for a semester; parents of elementary school students will be expected to commit to a trimester.
The recommendations of the two districts is similar to the model approved by the Belgrade School Board on Monday this week. After initially deciding to offer a “blended” model of in-person and online learning for its students, Belgrade trustees reversed their decision and approved full-time, in-person instruction with a distance learning option.
Ayers has recommended that students of all ages be required to wear masks in Manhattan schools, though the days will be structured to provide opportunities for students to remove face coverings when appropriate distance protocols can be observed.
Three Forks will abide by the Gallatin City-County Health Department’s directive for students in grades 6-12 to wear face coverings. However, Elliott said the district has purchased a number of clear, plastic dividers to be used in classrooms so students won’t have to keep their faces covered at all times.
Three Forks trustees will meet Monday, Aug. 10, at decide whether to accept Elliott’s recommendation. The meeting will be streamed on Zoom and Facebook Live. Manhattan trustees will meet Tuesday to consider Ayers’ recommendation.
Manhattan students will go back to school full time on Aug. 26 if the school board accepts the recommendation of Superintendent Brian Ayers next week.
Ayers told the Belgrade News he planned to post his recommended reopening plan on the district’s website on Wednesday, Aug. 5, though he cautioned the document may be amended before the school board meets.
“Daily, it seems, we get updated information from the county and state,” he said.
Though it is hoped most families will feel confident they can send their children to class safely, online instruction will be provided for students with concerns about their health or that of their family members, Ayers said.
“The district position is that their decision is the best decision for their family,” he said. “We will do the best we can to deliver them the best, robust program we can.”
Ayers predicts most families will opt for on-site, in-person instruction, based on results of a parent survey taken two weeks ago. Parents were asked to rate their comfort level about school reopening on a scale of 1-5, with 5 being “very comfortable” and 1 being “not very comfortable.”
The district received 458 responses, with 52 percent rating their comfort level at 5; 19.2 percent at 4; 13.5 percent at 3; 6.6 percent at 2; and 8.7 percent at 1.
Despite the large majority of respondents indicating they favored in the in-person option, Ayers said, “What we heard across the board was ‘we need more information.’ I think the main thing parents want to know about is masks.”
He said parents aren’t necessarily against their children wearing masks at school, but they are wondering how the days will be structured. The Gallatin City-County Health Department’s directive mandates mask use at school only for sixth- through 12th-graders, but Ayers said he is leaning toward recommending mask use for all grade levels. Belgrade Superintendent Godfrey Saunders is making the same recommendation as that district also prepares to resume full-time instruction in schools.
To ensure students won’t have their faces covered from the time they leave home in the morning until the end of the school day, Ayers said provisions will be made for kids to remove them when appropriate physical distancing can be accomplished. Those efforts will be emphasized in order to normalize social interactions between students as much as possible, he added.
“We want kids to be social at a physical distance,” he said.
Face coverings will be just one element of a three-tier plan to minimize infection risk as much as possible. Diligent hand hygiene will be the most strongly emphasized, followed by physical distancing and face coverings.
Because distancing recommendations including keeping people from interacting closely for more than 15 minutes, Ayers said teachers will plan lots of transitions between activities in their classrooms. But despite the best-laid plans, he predicts it will be impossible to avoid COVID cases from being diagnosed in Manhattan’s student population.
“Schools are going to have cases – I just don’t know how you would avoid it,” he said. “What we want to limit is kids being exposed in our schools, though we know some kids will come to school with it.”
The school board is scheduled to make its decision Tuesday, but continual updates to the recommended reopening plan may be posted between now and then on the district website, Ayers said.
Further west, Three Forks Schools Superintendent Jeff Elliott told the Belgrade News Wednesday morning that a plan for reopening would be posted on the district’s website in the afternoon, after the paper’s press deadline.
Elliott said classified and certified staff provided their input in meetings on Tuesday, all of which was being considered – along with parent input – at a task force meeting early Wednesday afternoon.
Elliott said in-person instruction will be offered in Three Forks, but as of Wednesday morning, it hadn’t been decided how many days students will attend in-person classes. He noted that physical distancing is difficult to accomplish in the old school building, so part of the decision will be driven by facility limitations.
Elliott said some families have indicated they are worried about sending their children back to class. Others have said they will not send their children back if they are required to wear masks at school.
Elliott said the district must comply with the county’s directive mandating face coverings for middle and high-schoolers, but the district is leaning against requiring them for younger children.
“At this point, masks wouldn’t be required in K-5, though we will encourage them,” he said.
Though Elliott said he doesn’t want to ask teachers to provide both in-person and online classes, the district has invested in a program to make distance learning work better than it did last spring.
Along with posting the reopening plan, Elliott said he intends to post an informational video for parents on the district website.