The East Helena School Board voted on Tuesday to continue distance learning for the remainder of the school year amid concerns about the spread of COVID-19.
"It's with a heavy heart that I speak to you tonight on this topic," said Superintendent Ron Whitmoyer.
Whitmoyer made the recommendation to keep the schools closed, noting that it's a decision that has been made by many districts throughout Montana. Whitmoyer said he believes this isn't the way school was meant to be conducted, but noted the responsibility of the district to protect the health of students, teachers, staff, families and the community at large.
"The physical building means nothing," Whitmoyer said. "It's the students, teachers and staff within those buildings that make up a school."
Whitmoyer praised the school district staff and mentioned how they switched from brick-and-mortar classrooms to online learning in less than 48 hours. He said the "amazing East Helena teachers and staff were able to pick that up and run with it" and "I'm extremely proud of the staff and colleagues I work with."
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The administration in East Helena surveyed parents on their opinions prior to making the decision. Whitmoyer said the majority of parents were fearful of the consequences of the district returning to business as usual and supported keeping the schools closed.
There is a small group of parents who want to go back, citing the importance of school to the development of young students. Whitmoyer said he cannot disagree, but said safety is paramount.
"School is crucial to the social and emotional development of our kids," said Whitmoyer. "As well as their academic development."
In the motion, the board made an exception for some students with special needs. Whitmoyer clarified this includes those who have no capability for online learning, a group that makes up a mere 1% of the school district. The district will make some accommodations for those students to provide them with opportunities in which school staff can control the conditions.
Whitmoyer noted this doesn't mean opening the schools all day long for these students, but operating for merely a few hours a day a couple of times a week.
The district will also make allowances for small groups of students to return to school to clean out lockers and pick up their things. Whitmoyer said officials will also give students an opportunity to say goodbye and give them some semblance of closure to the school year.