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Helena district releases first draft of back-to-school plan
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Helena district releases first draft of back-to-school plan

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A sign outside Jefferson Elementary School in Helena, Mont.

A sign outside Jefferson Elementary School in Helena notifies students and parents that school is closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Helena Public Schools has released the first official draft of its plan to reopen schools amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

In a letter prefacing the plan, Superintendent Tyler Ream says the draft is the result of hundreds of emails received during the past two months. The plan accounts for feedback from parents, students, educators and community members. It's the culmination of months of feedback and the lessons learned from the short-lived spring semester of last school year.

The letter goes on to say that this is the first pandemic the school district has faced since the Spanish Flu of 1918. However, he said much has changed in the past century and the general public learns more about COVID-19 every day. He said the evolving state of the pandemic called for an evolving plan with a number of contingencies in place, which is what the school district has tried to deliver.

The priorities for the district are health and safety for all, social and emotional supports as needed and a continuous dedication to provide the best possible teaching and learning environment, regardless of known challenges.

The plan works off the same phase system used by the state, going from Phase Zero (a complete shutdown with online classes only) to Phase 3 (business as usual like before the pandemic). An online digital learning experience will also be available as an option in all phases until a return to normalcy.

Phase Zero

In Phase Zero, school buildings will be physically closed to in-person attendance and all services will shift online. "Grab and go" food options will be available.

Phase 1

In Phase 1, gatherings will be limited to 10 people or less. Students will receive two days of in-person instruction and three days of online learning each week, and deep cleaning of all buildings will take place each Wednesday.

Breakfast and lunch will be served to students in attendance, and a "grab and go" option will be available for students attending digitally. School Aged Child Care will be provided.

Face masks will be required for everyone on campus except those with a medical exemption documented by a physician. Families will be asked to perform daily symptom checks prior to sending their students to school.

Schools must maintain a minimum distance of 6 feet between all individuals at all times in all spaces.

Phase 2

Phase 2 will allow schools to operate at nearly full capacity five days a week. However, activities and gatherings will be limited to 50 people or less to allow for maximum social distancing.

Face masks will be required for everyone on campus except those with a medical exemption documented by a physician. Families will be asked to perform daily symptom checks prior to sending their students to school.

This phase also requires schools to maintain distancing of 6 feet unless that is precluded due to physical space.

Phase 3

In Phase 3, operations will resume as normal but with continued precautions. Face masks will be encouraged and may be mandated by specific teachers, and 6-foot distancing will be encouraged but not mandated in all spaces.

The school district has not yet determined which phase will be in place when schools open on Aug. 26 and 27 and noted that the phases will likely be scaled up or down over the coming 10 months. While families may receive up to two weeks of notice before the school district enters a higher phase, a shift to a lower phase could occur with as little as one day's notice.

"Families that require childcare are encouraged to develop contingency plans should care become an immediate necessity due to school closure decisions," the draft plan says.

After months of mulling over how to handle transportation, it was ultimately decided that only 24 students will board any individual bus. This will ensure that there is only one seat per child, unless two children live in the same residence.

In June, Ream said the one thing that the majority of all feedback had in common was the desire to have some kind of in-person learning take place during the fall. This plan aims to accomplish that in the safest way possible.

The entirety of the plan can be viewed online on the Helena School District's website. The 40-page document goes over many questions that parents may have. Currently the district is seeking further feedback on this first draft. Those with feedback can send it to planning2020@helenaschools.org.

At a meeting on Tuesday, Ream said, "This is a draft. What we want is to get it out there and see what we can do to improve it."

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