Montana Schools Finalize Remote Learning Plans

Mar 30, 2020

Monday was the first day that public schools across Montana were required to have plans in place for how they will deliver online or remote education, as well as other services. MTPR’s Corin Cates-Carney spoke with reporter Aaron Bolton about classes moving forward as school buildings remain closed amid the novel coronavirus pandemic:

Corin Cates-Carney: Aaron, Gov. Steve Bullock ordered K-12 public schools across the state earlier this month to create plans for how they would continue offering most of the services they do normally to educate kids in the state. Can you give us a refresher on what’s in those plans?

Aaron Bolton: Yeah. So the governor told school districts to outline four things in order to maintain state funding through the coronavirus outbreak: How they plan to provide online or remote learning for their general population students, as well as a specific outline of how they will work with special ed students. The plans also need to explain how schools will provide food and other services, such as counseling.

Cates-Carney: Gov. Bullock gave schools just two weeks to get those plans in place. Did that happen?

Bolton: It did, and that largely happened late last week through the weekend. Little over half of the roughly 400 school districts in the state had their plans approved by local school boards and submitted to the governor’s office by early Friday, and the rest were able to get them in place before the weekend was through.

Cates-Carney: And it sounds like that’s not the only news coming out this week on the education front. Montana Office of Public Instruction is saying the state has received a blanket waiver from the U.S. Department of Education to forgo federal testing requirements. Is that right?

Bolton: Yeah. The state Board of Public Education did its part last week in waiving state laws requiring schools to administer the federal tests for elementary, middle and high school students, and that paved the way for OPI to request the waiver from the federal government.

These tests quiz students on English, math and some aspects of science in order to make sure they are meeting federal education standards.

Cates-Carney: So what about state standards for student achievements? How are those being handled to measure student success as we shift to this new normal of online or remote learning?

Bolton: All schools in Montana are still required to demonstrate that students are meeting the state’s minimum education standards, and how that’s done will likely look different this year depending on how long school doors are closed.

So far, that’s at least until April 10th, and determining whether students are meeting state standards is something districts outlined in their plans.

I spoke with Kalispell Public Schools Superintendent Mark Flatau about this little over a week ago. He says this has been like assembling a car as it’s going down the road, but he says one of the district’s goals is to direct resources to students who are already falling behind.

“Certainly the kids who are currently failing high school courses that they need for graduation we are focusing on specifically, and ensuring that those kids get the assistance and help they need in order to demonstrate proficiency, in order to demonstrate that they have earned their high school diploma based upon the rigorous standards that we have in Kalispell.”

Cates-Carney: That’s interesting he says, you know, assembling a car that’s going down the road. We’ve seen districts scrambling to shift their entire learning platform online, which means working around kids who don’t already have internet access at home. Is there an idea for what this is going to cost for districts to set up these systems and deliver education outside of the classroom?

Bolton: I’ve been asking that question, and the answer largely depends on who you’re talking to.

I mean, local school boards are the ones who determine how money is spent, or saved, within the parameters of state and federal laws. So some districts already had many online tools in place, had computers and internet enabled devices they could hand out to students. Others didn’t, and are spending money to buy devices to give to students, or maybe are using some flexibility with their transportation funds to reimburse families for installing internet in their homes. So a lot of this really depends on what tools districts had in place, or how much reserve funding they have.

However, Kirk Miller at School Administrators of Montana says, by and large, this expeditious shift to online and remote learning will cost school districts more.

“I think it's reasonable to assume that when you completely change your mode of delivery of educational services, that the expense of doing that, just merely in the training and the organization of being able to do what's being done, and then all of the effort out there to identify, you know, on an individual basis who has access to what, I think it's reasonable to assume that that's going to cost more money to deliver in that manner than what we currently have been doing.”

Bolton: But for the time being, we just don’t know how much this might cost. I spoke with OPI Superintendent Elsie Arntzen last week, and she said that dollar figure is likely to come out of fiscal requests during next year’s legislative session.

Cates-Carney: And there is some relief coming from the federal government. What do we know about that so far?

Bolton: The stimulus package passed by Congress last week does include about $13.5 billion for K-12 education nationwide, and when I spoke with a spokesperson at OPI, they said they were still crunching the numbers to find out just how much schools in Montana will get. But we should know those figures this week.

Cates-Carney: This has been a pretty hectic time for school administrators, teachers and families. During your reporting, are you seeing any positive notes to come out of this?

Bolton: Certainly more teachers and students are going to become more familiar with online learning tools this week as school gets underway for many districts, but schools are also taking surveys answering questions about the plan they submitted to the governor’s office.

And Kirk Miller at School Administrators of Montana put that survey together and he says anecdotally, he’s hearing so far that this exercise might really provide clarity on where the digital divide exists within schools.

“I'm, you know, reading and talking to people daily that are looking to identify, in a very personalized way, what kind of access individual students have, both broadband access as well as, you know, equipment at home that would be able to continue with online-type system learning, and then those that that don't have that kind of access.”

Bolton: Something that I heard from the Great Falls School District is they are not only figuring out who has internet or not, but what speed they may have, and if that’s adequate for the number of kids they have trying to log on at home.

So certainly some useful data for schools and the state to have.

Cates-Carney: Aaron, thanks for your reporting and sharing it with us.

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