21-01-29 Hemingway School 2

Emma Wilander teachers her fourth-grade class at Hemingway STEAM School in Ketchum on Wednesday, Jan. 27. Starting Feb. 8, all elementary schools in the Blaine County School district will return to the classroom four days a week.

Elementary school students in the Blaine County School District will return to in-person learning in the second week of February, the district’s board of trustees decided Wednesday night.

Board members voted 4-1 to resume classroom learning for elementary students four days a week, starting Feb. 8. Trustee Amber Larna, who said she would rather see students of all ages return to in-person learning, cast the dissenting vote.

Citing a decline in academic performance among elementary students and evidence suggesting that the virus is less likely to spread among elementary students than among older students or adults, all five trustees agreed on the need for the district’s youngest children to return to the classroom four days a week. Under the current hybrid system, students attend in person two days per week and online three days.

“I don’t know if we will have an opportunity to get this back if [elementary students] don’t go to school now,” Trustee Gretchen Gorham said.

Last March, after the first cases of COVID-19 were announced in Blaine County, the School District abruptly shifted to an online-only learning model, with all students working from home. In the fall, at the start of the 2020-21 school year, the school board voted to adopt the hybrid model that’s been in place since.

“We did it to keep people safe and we know there are sacrifices associated with that,” Trustee Lara Stone said. “I do not regret the decision we made before. But I take responsibility for [the unintended consequences].”

The percentage of elementary students in the Blaine County School District meeting the benchmark for reading proficiency in the fall of the 2020-21 school year decreased across all elementary grade levels from the previous year, School District data shows, dropping as many as 11 percentage points for some grade levels. The percentage of students meeting the math benchmark fell even further year-over-year, dropping 31 percentage points for third-graders, 24 percentage points for fifth-graders and 18 percentage points for first-graders.

“This is definitely not due to anybody not doing their jobs,” interim Superintendent Fritz Peters said Wednesday. “This is simply that kids need to be in school.”

Larna agreed that elementary students must return to the classroom, but said she felt older students should also resume in-person learning as soon as possible.

“I know that it’s riskier to put all our kids in [the classroom] at once, but I think by putting only a certain amount in we’re not providing an equal education for all of our students,” Larna said.

The original motion made by Stone on Wednesday night—to return elementary students to classrooms on Feb. 8 and upper-level students to classrooms on March 8—was modified to only include action at the elementary level. The board made no decisions on whether middle and high school students will return to increased in-person learning before the end of the school year.

While Larna advocated for middle and high school students to return to four-day-a-week classroom learning in the near future, other trustees said they were not yet comfortable resuming an in-person model for older students, citing the potentially higher risk of spreading the virus.

“I could be more aggressive [with sending students back] if we weren’t having this massive spike in the community,” Trustee Dan Turner said.

As of Thursday, the coronavirus risk level in Blaine County was listed at “critical” by the county’s risk assessment system, with the latest report describing the current new case rate as “one of the worst case rates Blaine County has seen since spring.”

Email the writer: gkauffman@mtexpress.com

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