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Smaller Western Montana school districts continue battling COVID-19

Arlee High School
Posted at 9:22 AM, Jan 20, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-20 11:22:21-05

ARLEE — There are just over 11,200 active COVID-19 cases in being reported in Montana on Wednesday with 86% coming from the state’s six biggest counties. (Read the full report here.)

Missoula and Gallatin counties lead with more than 2,300 and 3,000 respectively. Yellowstone and Flathead counties are both above 1,000 active cases while Lewis and Clark and Cascade counties are in the triple-digits.

The current surge is impacting several facets of the community — but especially our schools.

COVID-19 is keeping its grip on Western Montana’s largest school districts with Big Sky High School in Missoula moving to remote learning primarily due to the number of staff out with COVID-19. The virus is also working its way through a student body of over 1,000 kids.

Bonner School Winter

But just down the tracks at Bonner School District, classes haven’t gone remote since November of 2020. The biggest reason just might be the school’s small size. The K-8 independent district instructs 350 students.

Superintendent Jim Howard says from the very beginning, having a smaller school community meant reaching consensus without contention on issues like masking.

“The heated board meetings that we read about in places -- even in Montana -- that's not been a part of our experience at Bonner."

Howard says that for the most part, the trustees and the community they serve are on the same page when it comes to COVID-19.

Jim Howard Bonner Schools Superintendent

The priority from the start has been to keep desks occupied and that’s meant bi-weekly conversations with the Missoula City-County Health Department, following the governor's guidance to encourage masks and a board of trustees that is talking with the families they serve.

“Communication went both ways. When it became an option for the trustees to do what they wanted to do and represent what they felt were the interests of our local school district,” Howard said.

“They went a little bit different direction but certainly supporting wearing masks and...we've continued to keep safety protocols in place. Our custodians are still just putting in long hours,” Howard continued.

Bonner hasn’t seen significant surges or rapid community spread, but the Lumberjack’s small size hasn’t saved them from every obstacle as the part-time nurse, the principal, and Howard himself have done the bulk of contact tracing.

Empty Classroom Bonner School

“Not unscathed, because it's not been without its challenges,” Howard noted.

But if that’s the biggest challenge, Howard knows Bonner has survived the pandemic better than most.

Another small school district in Western Montana is also pressing on – for one reason only.

“We have to have the kids here,” Arlee Superintendent Mike Perry said.

Smaller class size continues working in Arlee’s favor.

“The more staff that you have the more opportunities that you're going to have to have staff missing,” Perry explained. “Luckily we're small enough that if we missed two or three teachers and other staff can fill in.”

Arlee Schools

Staff flexibility has saved Arlee, according to Perry.

“We have a paraprofessional that at the end of the day -- when they put their students on the bus -- she goes into custodial closet grabs a vacuum, and she's vacuuming classrooms and the hallways, and if it weren't for staff like that, we would not be open,” Perry said.

Masks are optional but encouraged in Arlee and the school district does have ties with Tribal Health to bolster contact tracing.

Right now, the biggest obstacle for Arlee and other districts across the country is burnout.

“We’re starting to see that end-of-semester look in teacher’s eyes and we’re mid-January,” Perry noted.