Inconsistency for children difficult as schools manage COVID-19

By: - September 19, 2021 9:27 am

A teacher walks among the masked students sitting in a socially distanced classroom session at Medora Elementary School on March 17, 2021 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

Montana schools are flickering between in-person and remote learning as transmission of COVID-19 causes an erratic first month of classes for some students. 

During a Thursday emergency school board meeting to decide whether to reopen Fortine Elementary School, Principal Laura Pluid read a note from a parent who said the inconsistency was making everything harder. The parent said they’d rather keep the school closed a little longer than have to keep seesawing. 

Since the start of the K-12 school year, news outlets have reported at least nine Montana schools or school districts have swapped from in person to temporary remote learning due to a high percentage of COVID-19 cases. The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services’ records show 285 students and 84 school staff members have contracted the virus as of Sept. 10.

While schools are trying to strike a balance between normalcy and caution, polarized opinions about masks and the coronavirus pandemic have made it tricky to impose transmission mitigation strategies. When Billings School District 2 imposed a mask mandate, parents and students protested, with Montana State Superintendent Elsie Arntzen as an attendee and speaker at the event.

But the neighboring Lockwood School District did not put a mask mandate into place because the community didn’t support it, said Superintendent Tobin Novasio. Teachers can’t battle their communities, he said.

Lockwood schools in Billings have not had to switch to remote learning this school year. However, as cases among children rise in Yellowstone County, Novasio is aware transmission may begin to spike in his district.

But hospitals and schools can’t be the only places trying to mitigate the spread, he said. Schools are trying to teach second graders who have never experienced a normal school year. Right now, teachers are strengthening trust and connections with students, he said.

“Having teachers enforcing a mask mandate is counterintuitive to trying to build those relationships,” Novasio said. 

So the district is using other mitigation strategies, he said. Symptomatic employees can get tested at school and the district partnered with a local health clinic for free testing for its students and families. The district also encourages vaccination. 

“Please have patience with us,” Novasio said. “With everything politicized, it’s got to be 100 percent one way or the other, and nobody is willing to find middle ground.”

At the end of August, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services issued an emergency rule ordering schools and school districts to demonstrate they’d considered parental concerns about imposed health mandates, such as mask requirements. The DPHHS went on to question the efficacy of masks, with evidence the Montana Nurses Association called “junk science.

At a legislative committee last week, a couple of lawmakers quizzed DPHHS on its decision to issue the rule. Kirk Miller, head of the School Administrators of Montana, expressed dismay at the confusion and anger sown as a result of the rule and Arntzen’s actions.

Sen. Dan Salomon defended the rule but said the situation had veered far away from what was best for children and had turned into “a political football.”

“It’s unfortunate,” said the Ronan Republican. “But that’s the way the world works right now.”

Watching pediatric admissions in the state climb while people battle over mitigation strategies is frustrating, said Lauren Wilson, vice president of the Montana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. 

Kids aged 12 and younger aren’t able to be vaccinated. While experts aren’t seeing an increase in case severity for kids who contract the delta variant of COVID-19, the number of cases among youth is rising, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics

Montana has just three small pediatric intensive care units in the state, Wilson said. If you have enough kids with COVID-19, infections can easily overwhelm the resources available to take care of them, she said. 

Good guidance exists about how to take a multi-layered approach to mitigation, which includes hand hygiene, distancing, regular testing and masking, which works, Wilson said.

“And yet, we’re seeing a lot of Montana schools not implement any of that guidance,” Wilson said. 

Children aren’t worried about wearing masks but about being quarantined and about illness and death, she said. As schools began to order short-term closures this school year due to COVID-19 transmission, Wilson began keeping track on Twitter, noting which schools had mask mandates.

Included in the list was Great Falls High School, which closed this year from Sept. 14-20. Almost overnight administrators realized about 200 students and staff wouldn’t be able to attend class due to illness or exposure to the virus, said Heather Hoyer, Great Falls Public Schools secondary assistant superintendent.

The district made masks optional this year for its middle and high schoolers, but required masks for its elementary-aged students. The closure caused Superintendent Tom Moore to review the policy, and the district may start to request or require masks for the secondary schools when cases spike. However, Hoyer echoed Lockwood Superintendent Novasio’s sentiment.

Kids are in school for about six hours a day, Hoyer said. Last year, when the district required students to wear masks in the classroom, Hoyer would still see high school aged students unmasked while working jobs after school. If the only time kids are masked is while at school, it doesn’t have the same effect, she said.

“I’m not sure we even still use the term ‘flatten the curve’ anymore,” Hoyer said. “But I’m not sure we’ll really see it truly flatten or drop until we see some consistency.”

During Fortine’s school board meeting Thursday, trustees voted 3-1 to reopen. Some of the proponents of reopening were people who said they did not have children in the school. One of these commenters complained it was difficult to find out if the emergency board meeting would be held in person.

School principal Pluid apologized, explaining she was symptomatic and it had taken three hours that afternoon for her to get tested. 

Lincoln County, where Fortine Elementary is based, has reported some of the highest numbers of COVID-19 so far this year, with 58 total school related cases as of Sept. 10. The majority of those cases came from two schools; Eureka Elementary School reported 19 students and staff cases and Libby Elementary reported 20.

Other school closures reported include: Noxon schools; Plains schools; Monforton Middle School; ​​Chester-Joplin-Inverness Schools and Hays-Lodge Pole Schools; and Rocky Boy Public Schools.

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Ashley Nerbovig
Ashley Nerbovig

Ashley Nerbovig is a journalist whose previous stops include the Missoulian, The Billings Gazette and the Detroit Free Press, where she covered the 2020 election and the topics of misinformation and disinformation. She went to the University of Montana's school of journalism.