With the coronavirus impacting public schools, there was much to discuss at the Sidney emergency school board meeting on Tuesday night, March 18.
The coronavirus has prompted school closures — mandated by the state’s governor — and the postponement of activities at least temporarily throughout the state of Montana and the country. None of that was more important, however, than trying to make tentative plans for school activities, teachers and students if the closures expand.
Sidney Schools Superintendent Monte Silk said he understands the closing of the schools isn’t ideal; but it’s necessary.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Silk made clear where he stands.
“The purpose of the school closures is to increase social distancing,” he said. “The reason for increasing social distancing is to prevent the spike in cases that will keep hospitals who have limited doctors, nurses, beds, ICUs, ventilators, from being overwhelmed and not being able to take care of those who are sick.
“Hopefully, we help the health centers from being inundated with an impossible task of trying to save lives when they don’t have the equipment,” Silk continued. “Everything about this has to deal with social responsibility.”
If the closing of schools is expanded, Silk believes a plan must be put in place for all school-related activities.
“If we have an extension of our school closures, then the recommendation would be to postpone prom or other activities indefinitely, so if there are other alternatives, I would say by parents or community, they should be looking at those now,” Silk said. “For example, the state of Wyoming has closed for three weeks, Kansas just called school the rest of the year and we just don’t know what’s going to happen. But the trend is not toward anything being normal at all.”
Ben Thogersen, chairman of the school board committee, agreed. He said the board basically doesn’t have a choice.
One of the main topics discussed going forward was grading and off-site instruction. Although plans are still being worked out, Carl Dynneson, Sidney High School assistant principal, said back-up plans exist if the schools continue to remain closed.
Dynneson addressed concerns about students’ grades and how academic performance will be evaluated with the disruption of classes.
“We have a short-term plan and a long-term plan depending on where this goes,” he said. “But as it sits now, the only recorded GPA would be at the high school on an official transcript — and the third quarter is not a recordable one. If they’re sitting at a certain grade now, they have the fourth quarter to accommodate that.”
Sidney High School Principal Brent Sukut added that in case the school year cannot be completed in the classroom, grade evaluations will have to be based on proficiency.
“This is an example — and I’m not saying this is what we would do — but if you take your kids at the high school level that are not passing, you would give them any work they’re missing,” Sukut said. “They would have an opportunity to get [a] failing grade up to a passing grade before the end of the third quarter.”
With the coronavirus pandemic affecting the entire country, Sukut said the Sidney board will be able to review examples from other schools to learn how they handle school closures.
“There’s going to be a number of examples of how other schools are doing this and we’ll be able to find one that is similar to what we would like to use,” he said.
Silk summed it up by stating he just wants each student to finish their coursework successfully.
“Even though we’re planning proficiency as an administrative team for each school, each grade level, our goal is to have each student complete the course and the grade, whatever that takes, even if it’s off-site learning, that’s what we’ll do,” Silk said.
If off-site schooling is enabled for the foreseeable future and students don’t have access to the internet at home, there will be paper copies of coursework provided, if needed.
“Anything that we would run digitally, we would also have to make available with a paper copy, and we may run into a situation where we have to drop some of those off at different places for them to come pick it up,” Sukut said. “It just depends on the protocol we decide to put in place at that point.”
Thogersen understands this isn’t ideal for anyone, not just in Richland County, Mont., but around the country.
“You feel for everybody in this case, every aspect of this is hard on a community,” he said. “It’s not just the students. It’s not just the school. It’s not just the teachers. I mean, the whole country is suffering.
“We’re in a very tough place right now,” Thogersen said. “But I think this whole process is going to be fluid to the end because every day and every hour, things are changing.”