High school and middle school students in the Blaine County School District will return to the classroom on March 8, the district’s board of trustees decided Tuesday.

Upper-level schools will follow the same four-days-a-week model elementary schools have been using since they resumed in-person learning on Feb. 8, with Fridays spent working online.

Since the start of the 2020-21 school year, middle and high schools have operated under a hybrid learning model, with students in the classroom two days a week and learning from home the remaining three days. Elementary schools were operating under the same hybrid model until last week.

“[Returning elementary students to the classroom] has been really successful in any way you look at it,” Superintendent Fritz Peters told the board Tuesday night.

According to the most recent data available on the district’s COVID dashboard, published last Thursday, Feb. 11, there were seven total active student COVID cases and zero active staff cases within the district’s elementary schools between Feb. 5 and Feb. 11. (Two of the student cases were at Hemingway STEAM School; it is unclear whether those students were in elementary or middle school.)

There were 44 students quarantined across Alturas Elementary, Hemingway and Hailey Elementary; 33 of those students were Hemingway students. Ten students were also quarantined at the Carey School, though it is unclear whether those students were in elementary, middle or high school. No elementary staff were in quarantine.

The trustees voted unanimously to return all students to the classroom in March, citing some students’ suffering academic performances and personal challenges under the hybrid model.

“The main concern we have by not going four days a week is the lack of academic progress and their social-emotional struggles,” Hemingway STEAM School Principal Tish Short told the board of the middle-schoolers in her charge. “We’ve had a lot of kids really having a hard time with it, and it’s hard to watch.”

Trustees acknowledged the trepidation of some teachers to return to in-person learning due to concerns about COVID-19, but noted that most teachers will likely have had the opportunity to receive a vaccine by March 8.

Trustee Gretchen Gorham said she agreed that students should return to the classroom, but suggested that some sort of additional support may be needed for students who may struggle to return to fully in-person learning, especially those who have taken jobs during the pandemic. More than half of all 11th and 12th graders at Wood River High School have worked this year, according to Principal John Pearce, with about a third of those students contributing some of their earnings to their households.

Peters also acknowledged the large number of students working, noting that many are currently working five days a week.

“Our primary concern is their academics and their schooling,” Peters said. “But we want to make sure those students have time to work out their schedules with their employers.”

Anecdotally, Pearce said, some working students have said they may not return to school full-time. Other parents may not want to send their children back four days a week due to safety concerns, he noted.

“I don’t think anyone’s prepared the students for the reality of this happening,” Gorham said. “I am in support of them getting back to school. But we are going to need some support at the high school to manage that situation.”

Whether the four-day-a-week model continues through the end of the school year will depend on community transmission rates and quarantine numbers. If both show a pattern of decreasing in the weeks after high schoolers and middle schoolers return, the board will consider moving to full in-person learning five days a week. If transmission and quarantine numbers increase, the trustees may move the district back to the hybrid model.


Editor's note: This story was updated with more information at 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 18.

Email the writer: gkauffman@mtexpress.com

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