The head of Missoula County Public Schools on Friday said the district remains in close touch with state and federal officials regarding its COVID-19 response, which could include short-term school closures if a case is detected.
As of Friday, however, Superintendent Rob Watson said the district doesn’t plan to close schools after spring break. It has, however, canceled school-sponsored travel and events, and it plans to limit the mass-gathering of students, with lunch and the upcoming ACT tests being an exception.
Public attendance at school events will also be discontinued.
“We believe there is a potential for spread among community members,” Watson said. “We want to be sensitive to that. We want to take our part in making sure we’re not part of that spread.”
Watson joined local health officials, government leaders and the University of Montana in briefing their response to the national outbreak of COVID-19. While no cases have been detected in Missoula, health officials said that’s likely to change.
Superintendents from the state’s seven largest districts have pooled together to craft a cohesive and unified response to the virus and any actions they might take. Doing so was intended to reduce confusion and create continuity across the state’s most populated counties.
“We’ve discussed at the district level how we might prepare for school closures, should that come to be, with regards to delivery of critical services, like our school lunch program,” Watson said. “We have not received any specific guidance, orders or instructions to close schools after spring break.”
Watson said the CDC has issued recommended guidelines on when to consider a district-wide closing.
“We’re not at that stage yet, though we know we could be there very quickly with the way this is evolving,” he said. “We’ll take direction from the local county health department, as well as the Governor’s Office should we need to move to a district wide closing.”
As it stands, Watson said, the closing of a single school would be a more likely response. That would occur if a student or teacher was detected to have the virus.
Such a closing would likely last up to five days.
“We are prepared to do short-term closing should there be a case – a student or staff that’s confirmed,” he said. “That will allow for cleaning of the school and allow room for the health department to identify close contacts.”
Closing a school could have impacts beyond canceled classes, leaving working parents left to care for children. That could place a greater burden on some families, and it’s something not lost on district officials.
“It’s something we have to take into account before we make these decisions,” Watson said. “We put some of our most at-risk families in jeopardy when we close schools, and we recognize that. If we had to close for 2-5 days, the reason we’re doing so is to stop the spread in that individual school and population. We recognize that’s a problem and we’re going to have to solve that.”
The University of Montana also is taking measures ahead of the virus, some of which were announced on Thursday. The university will join others under the Montana University System in moving to online-only classes after spring break.
School sponsored travel, spring sports and campus performances also have been put on hold.
“These are not decisions that we’re taking lightly,” said UM President Seth Bodnar. “They’re tough and they impact our students. But we believe strongly that by being proactive now, it’ll have an impact and significantly improve the outlook for our community.”
Bodnar also expressed concern over xenophobic and racially biased accusations around the global virus. Some of those have targeted UM’s international students and others in the community.
“We all realize fear and anxiety exist, but it’s important that we work to disrupt incidents of bias, racism or xenophobia wherever and whenever we see them,” he said. “That won’t stop the spread of this virus. That will only make this worse, and it’s our duty to ensure members of our community feel safe, included and welcome.”