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Missoula Public Schools, child care providers gear up for hybrid return to class

Superintendent of Missoula County Public Schools Rob Watson said the hybrid model is a safe and conservative way to ease back into the academic year. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Missoula County Public Schools and area child care providers on Friday detailed their plans to reopen schools later this month, and how they plan to safely accommodate the return of students eager to commence the academic year.

The district will begin the school year on Aug. 26 in what Superintendent Rob Watson described as a Phase 1 hybrid model, or a blend between classroom instruction and remote learning.

“It allows for some in-person and remote learning, and allows them to lower the number of students in school buildings,” Watson said. “It helps reduce transmission rates and helps them work through protocols to begin the year.”

Watson said the district has mapped out the first four weeks of the school year and will keep tabs on COVID-19 case counts and trends. Circumstances after four weeks will likely dictate the district’s next move and whether it begins another phase of instruction.

“I do believe starting in a hybrid model is a safe way to start, and a conservative way to start,” Watson said. “It helps us start those lessons and protocols with students. We have protocols for safety, and we’ve done some amazing things with our school schedules.”

Protocols include cleaning and sanitation, and face coverings will be required for all students and staff. Social distancing will be enforced, Watson said, and classes will include a staggard start and end to limit the mixing of students.

“Should we have a confirmed case, it limits the transmission to other students and teachers,” Watson said of the district’s plans. “It helps the health department with contact tracing if we can limit the mixing of students.”

In making its plans, the district understood the impacts the hybrid approach may have on parents, especially those who work during the day and may need to find – and fund – additional childcare.

Gov. Steve Bullock has already directed $50 million to maintain and expand child care, as well as support working families. That includes $30 million in grants to care for school-aged children outside school.

Various childcare programs, including the YMCA, the Boys and Girls Club, and Missoula Parks and Recreation, are also offering expanded care during school and various scholarships to help income eligible families pay for that care.

“It’s a complex challenge to consider how to meet the needs of families who need to work while our economy is open and schools are operating on a hybrid and reduced schedule,” said Grace Decker.

“Even since last March, when schools were in shut down, many of our child care facilities and out-of-school providers stepped up services to serve essential workers during that time. Many have months of experience implementing consistent and effective health and safety protocols on these programs.”

But Decker also acknowledged that Missoula, like much of Montana, has a shortage of child care providers. That could pose a challenge as MCPS begins the school year in a hybrid model, forcing many families to find care for their children during working hours when those children aren’t in class.

“The challenge right now, when we’re talking about school-aged children on days when they’d typically be in school, that’s a service that’s never been needed before,” Decker said. “Children of school age are typically in school while parents are working.”

But with school operating on a different schedule, Decker said it’s likely to create a greater demand for service.

“With school operating on very different schedule, it creates a gap we don’t necessary yet have all the services in place to meet,” she said. “Providers who are already serving school-aged children in the summer, during school vacations and after school times, are moving very quickly to try to provide support.”

Despite the challenges, area providers said Friday they’re up to the challenge as society works to slip back into a new normal, which starts with the reopening of schools and a return to work.

The Missoula City-County Health Department is working closely with MCPS and area child care providers to ensure the next step is taken safely.

“The only protection we have right now against this virus is essentially distance or things that can control the release of respiratory droplets,” said Ellen Leahy, director of the health department. “The virus is very catchy. It does break through. Children may have symptoms and we don’t even know they’re contagious.”

Leahy said the district’s hybrid model and safety protocols are a good way to ease back into class.

“The smaller groups mean fewer people are exposed,” she said. “That type of thinking and planning is evident in everything you’ve heard. The district has been incredible in its commitment to reduce that risk.”