To say this school year has been hard on students and their families would be the understatement of the century.
Since the beginning of the fall semester, Helena students who are not enrolled in the school district’s fully online Digital Learning Initiative have been spending two days a week in the classroom and three days a week remotely learning from home to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Many of their parents and guardians have been forced to scale back their time at work or leave the workforce entirely to help educate their children at home, which is financially straining families during what is already a difficult time.
Students now have much less face time with their teachers and their peers, and some have disengaged from their schoolwork. Growing evidence suggests remote learning is taking a toll on students socially, emotionally and academically, according to a recent NPR report.
The report also notes that three scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found little evidence that schools that reopened for in-person instruction in the fall significantly contributed to the spread of COVID-19. According to Helena Public Schools Superintendent Tyler Ream, the Harvard Global Health Institute is now advising that schools are relatively safe in terms of virus transmission.
While all of this suggests it may be time for Helena students to return to the classroom five days a week, the CDC scientists and Harvard Global Health Institute both emphasized that safety precautions being used in schools are responsible for much of their success in slowing the spread.
Lewis and Clark County is regularly adding more daily cases of COVID-19 now than it was when school started in the fall. And even though officials have started rolling out the COVID-19 vaccine, only about 8% of the of the county population has received the first dose and less than 2% is fully vaccinated so far.
Educators have been moved to Phase 1C of Montana’s COVID-19 vaccination plan, which means teachers will remain highly vulnerable to the disease late into the semester and some may not receive both doses before the school year ends. And students won’t be in the classroom long if there is nobody healthy enough to teach them.
All other AA school districts in Montana have returned or will soon return students to the classroom five days a week, and Helena Public Schools is asking families and staff whether it should do the same.
Clearly, this is no time to let down our guard.
But as long as the right safety protocols are in place, returning students to the classroom full-time is the right move for our community.