Libby school officials study reopening plan

| July 17, 2020 8:36 AM

With the new school year approaching, Libby Public School District educators face an increasingly difficult question as novel coronavirus cases climb in Lincoln County: How do you balance public safety with public education?

For Superintendent Ron Goodman the answer is still not clear, but finding a way to get students in classrooms this fall is critical.

“What I believe, firmly, is that if we don’t have a chance to get kids in school, we’re going to be in some serious trouble,” Goodman said at a July 13 Libby Public School Board meeting.

During the meeting, Goodman presented a tentative reopening plan, which he referred to as “not even a draft, but a viral draft.”

As it stands, the plan is divided into four phases. Phase zero — or the worst case possible — involves keeping all schools closed and having students continue remote learning.

Under phase one, families would be able to choose whether to send their students to school or keep them on a remote learning schedule. Students attending school would be assigned to small groups that would be kept isolated throughout the day.

When outside of classrooms, students would be required to wear masks under phase one.

“That’s going to make a lot of sense because they’re going to spill less virus all over,” said Goodman.

According to the superintendent, the district has 1,500 masks ordered with 3,000 on hand. Many of the masks are washable. Joseph Chopyak, a physician assistant specializing in family medicine at Cabinet Peaks Medical Center, recommended that the district require masks as part of the dress code.

School board members also discussed the pros and cons of screening students’ temperatures. Goodman said that while it would be difficult to screen all students before school, it made sense to check the temperatures of visitors.

Chopyak told the board members “the science behind screening is really soft.”

On hot days, a screener could pick up a fever-level temperature from a healthy person. On cold days, a student with a fever could register a normal temperature. He said it was also important to consider what schools would do if a screener picked up a student with a fever. Where would the student be quarantined? What would happen if their emergency contact could not be reached?

Despite the issues with screening, Chopyak told the board members that there are no other tools they could use to assess the health of students and staff on a day-to-day basis.

“We have nothing else, folks,” he said.

School board members weighed requiring testing for teachers, but again Chopyak described it as an imperfect option. Maria Clemons, the Executive Director at the Northwest Community Health Center, told board members that testing only offers a snapshot of a person’s health. Since it can take up to 14 days to process a test, the results are often outdated. A person could also contract the virus the day before a test and still register as being healthy.

“It certainly doesn’t give you any sense of security if you test all your teachers on day one,” Clemons said.

Under phase one, buses would have strict seating arrangements and courtesy pickups would not be available.

Goodman envisions having 24 students spaced out on each bus. To reach this number, buses would not pick up students within three miles of the school under the plan. Families not in the pick up zone would be responsible for getting their students to school.

Wes Tangen, the district’s transportation manager, said the three-mile radius extended from the end of the four-lane highway, west of town, to Payne Machinery shop on state Highway 37 to Southend Diesel on U.S. Highway 2.

“That’s a lot of parents that are going to call,” Tangen told the board members.

Under phase one, food would be delivered to students in classrooms. Band and choir activities for students would be cancelled.

“I think of a trumpet as a big COVID bazooka,” said Goodman. “How do you deal with that? ... Large groups of kids blowing virus all over the place.”

Despite reductions in extracurricular activities, Goodman does not expect students to be kept cooped up in their classrooms all day. Bathroom and recess breaks would be accommodated. Alida Leigh, a board member, asked how students would move to and from classrooms in the mornings and afternoons.

“I’m seeing us like the first day of kindergarten,” said Goodman, referring to how students would be carefully corralled before and after classes. “It’s going to be a hands on event.”

Troy Public Schools included a scenario in the draft of their reopening plan wherein groups of students would attend school on different days depending on where they live. But Goodman wanted to avoid dividing the student body. Doing so would severely reduce the instruction time of each student, he said.

Phase two — the stage Goodman said the district currently is in — would allow students to mix in groups of under 50. Masks may be required in common areas and traffic patterns would likely be established in the hallways to reduce contact. Busing policies would follow the guidelines laid out in phase one. Extracurricular activities would be allowed to resume with crowd size restrictions set by the Lincoln County Health Department.

Under phase two, students would need a valid medical excuse to be allowed to work remotely. Goodman said this policy would be adopted to keep teachers from having to manage both remote and classroom learning. Clemons asked the school board members to be careful not to position the healthcare community against parents.

“We get request all the time for ‘can I have an excuse for this’ and ‘can I have an excuse for that’” Clemons said. “The healthcare community gets flooded with a bunch of kids who want [exemptions].”

Goodman said that under phase two, teachers might be allowed to move between classrooms. If this poses too much of a risk, schools might also adopt block schedules to reduce contact between groups of students.

Under phase three, schools would operate as they had before the pandemic. Although ideal, Goodman said the district would most likely not start the school year in this stage.

At this point, Goodman said it was unclear who would be deciding which phase the schools would reopen under. It is a problem districts across the state are grappling with, he said.

“That was a pretty heated conversation on our superintendent’s call today,” Goodman told the school board members. “There was no answer on that.”

Most likely, Goodman will work with the county health board to determine what phase the district falls into when classes begin.

After reviewing and discussing the plan, board members opted to publish a survey on the Libby Public School District’s website soliciting feedback from parents. An “all-call” will be made to announce the survey when it is released.

“I think everyone in this room has the same goal,” Godman told the board. “We want kids to stay safe and we want kids to have an education, just like we all had an education. We don’t want theirs to be lacking.”