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Middle, high school students to return to class March 8

By Eric Valentine

With COVID-19 case numbers dropping—yet still in the health district’s most severe “critical” range—Blaine County School District high schoolers and middle schoolers will be coming back to class full-time.

At its Feb. 16 meeting, the Blaine County School District Board of Trustees voted unanimously to resume in-class learning to all schools in the district. As a result, all students in grades 6–12 (and 7–12 at Carey Secondary School) will move forward with in-person learning four days a week, beginning Monday, March 8. Along with vaccine distribution, in-person learning is one of the most critical benchmarks for any community’s “return-to-normal-life” efforts. It’s a relief for many folks, such as working parents, and a cause for concern for others, such as some school staff and those worried we are moving toward normal life too soon during a pandemic that has now reached half a million deaths nationwide.

“It’s kind of like calling a snow day,” observed interim superintendent Fritz Peters. “Some people are going to love you for it, and some people are not.”

According to Peters, less than 50% of high school students surveyed in the district said they wanted to return to full-time in-class learning. A number of students, he said, have shared with him their appreciation for the intimacy of smaller group learning and the added flexibility they have in some cases. However, a much higher percentage of elementary school students’ parents and a moderately higher percentage of middle school parents said they were in favor of full-time in-class learning.

Moreover, pushing the district to open fully sooner than later are the students’ low test standardized test scores. The district has not shared specific scores, but Peters described them as “really poor.”

“Some numbers I have never seen before as a principal,” Peters said. “There’s also concern at the high school level of credit loss.”

Peters and interim principal at Wood River Middle School, Robert Ditch, both reported that district stakeholders who’ve been in touch with them show folks are polarized on the issue of bringing students back full-time. Ditch said among the polarized are his staff.

“I’ve got several who are ready to have students back four days a week,” Ditch said. “But the largest group by far is the group who has trepidation about the ability to maintain safety systems within our school. But they’re also seeing exactly the same need when it comes to test scores and students who are falling out. Not dropping out, but just not participating to the degree we’d like to see them participating.”

Pulling It Off

BCSD says it will continue to follow sound protocols aligned with expert health guidance to protect the health and well-being of students and staff. For instance, all students and staff will continue to wear masks, and frequent hand-washing will be encouraged throughout the day.

Yet, with more students in buildings, the district’s ability to maintain a constant 6 feet of distance between individuals at all times becomes essentially null and void.

“Now you really have to say goodbye to it,” Peters said. “But the masks are strictly enforced as is the washing of hands. Many of the classrooms still have plexiglass (around school desks).”

The district said its experience with the same model at its elementary levels “has not appeared to have a significant effect on the spread of the virus.”

The Board of Trustees said it will be closely monitoring the district’s quarantine numbers. If community transmission rates and quarantine numbers drop consistently, the board will consider moving ahead with full in-person learning, five days a week. On the other hand, if transmission and quarantine numbers increase significantly, the district may need to move back to a hybrid model.

Meanwhile, at all BCSD schools, Fridays will be reserved for interventions, at least for now. “I think you could look at increasing Fridays,” said Peters. “But I would say that probably at this time the teacher response to that—in terms of being in favor of that—would be low.”

Teachers have been using these days to work with quarantined students and engage in teacher collaboration.

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