UPDATED: MCPS will move all grades to phase 2 for second semester (2024)

Missoula County Public Schools will move to phase 2 of the district’s reopening plan as early as Jan. 25, the Board of Trustees decided late Tuesday night.

The board approved separate motions for both K-8 and high school students to transition to more in-person instruction under phase 2 for the second semester, which starts Jan. 25.

MCPS students are likely to return to in-person learning at least four days a week, if not five, once they move into phase 2. School buildings will be at near to full capacity. MCPS is currently in phase 1 under a hybrid model, with students learning remotely on three days a week and in-person on two.

The administration’s recommendation for grades K-8 to move to phase 2 was at the behest of the district’s COVID Task Force. The task force and administration had recommended grades 9-12 remain in hybrid for a while after the K-8 transition is underway.

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But Trustee Koan Mercer moved to bring high schools back at the same time as K-8 for the second semester. Trustees approved the motion.

“There’s no reason why high schools can’t be actively working on this the same way K-8 is,” said Trustee Jennifer Vogel.

“If we’re going to move this ball forward, we need to move this ball forward," said Trustee Nancy Hobbins."I have full trust in the administration that they can plan this.”

Mercer said while he’s been on the side of opening, it’s not because he doesn’t see the risk in bringing more students back into buildings.

“I just think the risk of not opening is more damaging,” he said. “I do believe we’re asking teachers to go into harm’s way, but I think it’s worth it.”

Trustee Wilena Old Person was the only board member to oppose moving to phase 2 for both K-8 and high school students. She brought attention to the fact that the COVID Task Force, which helped craft the recommendation, did not include any members of the BIPOC community.

“Especially coming from a vulnerable population, 16% of MCPS students are BIPOC," Old Person said. "BIPOC people have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. I understand the need as a mother for my children to be in school, but I’d rather have my child be alive, my child’s teacher be alive.”

The decision also comes a week after Gov. Greg Gianforte revised the state’s vaccine rollout plan, which pushed teachers back in line from group 1b to group 1c.

“We are encouraging teachers and educators to move forward without any idea of when they may be vaccinated," said Julie Gilbertson Day during public comment."As a school board, I would encourage you to contact the state lawmakers, the governor’s office, and advocate for your educators to be able to get the vaccination.”

MCPS said Wednesday more than 580 people watched the virtual Tuesday night board meeting. During public comment, several parents spoke of the struggles they’ve faced under the hybrid model and the need to get students back in schools.

“Although some are doing fine, there are a lot of kids who aren’t,” said MCPS parent and Missoula City Council member Gwen Jones of the hybrid model. “There are kids who are crashing and burning. There are kids who may not ever return to high school probably. There are kids who did OK with grades and frankly hit the pandemic and went into hybrid and nose-dived.”

“The data’s out now and the kids, most of them don’t get sick, so they’re not effectively spreading it in school,” said Alex Omura, a local physician with two kids in MCPS. “The downsides of the kids staying home, the depression, the suicide, the loss of learning is just too high to continue this.”

Other commenters highlighted Trustee Old Person’s concerns about representation and protecting Native and BIPOC communities.

Annie Belcourt, an associate professor of pharmacy at University of Montana, reminded trustees that, “30% of the mortalities are from Native people in our state, and only 8% of the people in our state are Native people.”

While some teachers spoke in support of moving to phase 2, most expressed trepidation and concern for how the transition will be done safely.

“I hope this isn’t another case of wishful thinking during the pandemic,” said Nick Grener, a teacher at Hellgate High. “This is very difficult on all of us and is a big ask on teachers. Implementation in two weeks is going to be messy.”

Angie Palin, a third-grade teacher at Franklin Elementary School, said she’s scared to have twice as many students in her classroom every day, adding lives should not be sacrificed for education.

“It’s not just test scores we need to look at," she said. "This is a world pandemic."

The return to phase 2 is contingent on the district developing a safe implementation plan and meeting five of the six Harvard Global Health Institute infection control measures, which were created to help schools navigate the reopening process. The implementation plan will be developed jointly by administrators, teachers and education staff.

The six Harvard control measures include universal masking, hand and bathroom hygiene, achieving four to six air changes per hour of “clean” air, 3 feet of social distancing, robust quarantine policies and contact tracing, and surveillance testing, where feasible.

Watson said while surveillance testing is currently not feasible at MCPS, the district should be able to meet the other five control measures for the second semester.

Burley McWilliams, the MCPS facilities director, explained recent updates to the district’s air ventilation and filtration systems at Monday’s task force meeting, which allow them to achieve an average of seven air exchanges per hour in most classrooms.

At the same meeting, Ellen Leahy said schools have not been the generator of spikes in the community and presented data showing school-aged kids are seeing fewer cases than older age groups countywide. And within schools, grades K-8 are seeing less transmission than Missoula’s high schools, she said.

“When you look at (kindergarten) through middle school, even during our (November) spike, those incidence rates were consistently lower than other age groups in the county.”

Another aspect of the district’s rationale for bringing younger grades back is that those students are more vulnerable to falling behind.

According to MCPS, preliminary fall assessment data shows 40% of K-5 students in the district’s four Title 1 schools and 28% of students in the five non-Title 1 schools are two or more years behind in reading.

MCPS currently has 12 active cases of COVID-19 and has seen a total of 309 cases since the start of the school year, according to the district website.

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  • Mcps
  • Hybrid
  • In-person Learning
  • Board Of Trustees
  • Missoula County Public Schools

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UPDATED: MCPS will move all grades to phase 2 for second semester (2024)


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