Missoula County Public Schools will remain closed for the duration of the academic year, saying the risk of reopening under the current health threat – and under current state requirements – outweighed the benefits of returning to class.

Acting on the recommendations of Superintendent Rob Watson, the board of trustees opted to finish the school year in remote learning, or May 30. The district will begin making plans for next fall as it looks to safety return to a normal academic setting.

“This is not an easy decision. This was not an easy recommendation for us,” said Watson. “We have to weigh the short-term benefits versus the potential risks, and it seems like the potential risks far outweigh the short-term benefits of reopening.”

In his plans for a phased reopening, Gov. Steve Bullock said public schools could open on May 7, and he left it up to each individual district to make that determination.

Watson detailed a number of challenges that would come with reopening schools. Under state guidelines, the district would be required to provide seating charts to maintain safe distancing and aid in contact tracing if needed.

The district would also be required to screen all students at all schools every day as they entered the building. That would further require the district to find trained personnel capable of providing that screening, and to ensure those individuals had personal protective equipment.

“If we're going to do screenings, we're going to have to have PPE for our screeners,” Watson said. “We have a lack of trained medical staff to cover every building.”

If a case of coronavirus did surface in school, the district would work closely with the City-County Health Department on contact tracing. But the health department is unable to support the district in other ways if school's reopened.

“When we were in pertussis, the health department was in the school helping with seating charts, screening students and contacting parents,” said Watson. “The way they're staffed right now, they would be unable to help us in the school setting. They wouldn't be able to help us with those in-school services like they did with pertussis.”

Watson and several trustees said staying with remote learning for the rest of the year comes with other costs, such as providing lunches from school buses and setting up hot-spots across the city to provide all students access to remote learning.

Watson said the district would track those costs and other projected expenses moving forward. It would also work to carry any expenses into the next academic year.

“Setting up those 100 hot spots were in the neighborhood of $20,000,” Watson said. “Not only are we paying for the devices, but also a short time of access through an Internet carrier. That's just an example. We'll be looking at other potential costs.”

Watson said remote learning comes with challenges and isn't ideal for all students, and several teachers and parents agreed during public comment. But he said the district will continue to apply its resources to move those efforts forward, and it's working to ensure all students remain engaged.

“Our interest in the district is to make sure we're providing a great educational experience to all kids,” said trustee Grace Decker. "This decision about health and safety is the first of many we'll have to make to move forward equitably as a district."

Despite the challenges posed by remote learning, the trustees agreed that opening classrooms to finish out the school year posed greater risks to the community at large.

“I found myself feeling really torn between two less than ideal solutions,” said trustee Heidi Kendall. “We will know more as time goes by, and that's reassuring because the more we know, the more likely we'll hit the target we're trying to hit, which is the best education for each child in the district.”