This story is part of a series about ways Montana found lasting adaptations during the shutdown. It’s funded in part by the Solutions Journalism Network.
When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down in-person classes for K-12 schools across the state, teachers and staff scrambled to continue education remotely.
The prognosis for their efforts isn’t great. Researchers predict most students will see significant declines in math and reading skills due to their loss of in-person instruction. However, the shut downs also prompted educators to develop new techniques they’ll continue to use when they return to in-person classes.
In mid-March students and teachers around the state left their classrooms for the weekend unaware that most wouldn’t return until fall.
When Linda Rost, Montana’s 2020 Teacher of the Year, found out she would have to finish the year remotely, she did something she’d never done: in a Zoom call she asked her high school science students what they wanted to do.
Rost’s students at Baker High School, which is in Fallon County on the North Dakota border, came to an enthusiastic consensus. They wanted to do an open-ended research project on COVID-19.
"One student also looked at how we can implement social distancing in high school rodeos because she's a high school rodeo athlete, and another student was concerned because there were some ranchers who were talking about how they already vaccinate cattle for a Coronavirus. So they weren't concerned about this virus, and so she wanted to investigate that virus in that vaccine and show how it's different from SARS, co v2 and the vaccines that they're trying," Rost said.
Rost took another creative step. She asked her students to come up with ways to share their findings with their community. Some made PowerPoint presentations, others wrote letters for a time capsule and a few created videos for the social networking platform, Tik Tok. Senior Logan Graham recorded an interview for his project.
"Today I’ll be interviewing the mayor of Baker, JoDee Pratt. I’ll be asking questions on how the COVID-19 and the recent quarantine has affected her job as mayor and her personal life," Graham started with.
Rost said giving students the opportunity to engage with a current event on their own terms was such a success that she’ll offer more open-ended projects in the future.
"The thing is when you try new things in the classroom like this, and you give the students these opportunities to lead, you can really see how we've probably been doing it wrong for a long time by not giving them that opportunity," Rost said.
While Rost’s students finished out the year with remote learning, Circle Public School in Northeast Montana was one of the first schools in the country to reopen its doors. The Circle school board oversees a rural district with fewer than 200 students in McCone County.
As of June 16, the county had no known cases of Covid-19. The board decided that with precautions, it would be safe for students to return. Superintendent Preston Wenz said the school closures made it clear that in addition to education, schools help meet basic needs like food, social interaction and mental health support.
"It wasn't about making up for those academics that might have been lost from them being at home. It was all about just being able to close it out, and for the social and emotional side of it, to just know that they were able to come back to school," Wenz said.
Wenz said his realization that students suffer without good counseling from the school will carry over into the fall. He plans to use CARES Act funds to bring in extra mental health support after summer vacation.
The pandemic also revealed disparities in students’ access to technology. Every teacher had to rely on the internet to keep in touch with students and families, give students assignments, and provide other kinds of support.
"We're in such a technology age, it's easy to think, 'Well, everybody's got internet, you know, one way or the other,' and that's not true," Wenz said.
At the beginning of the school closure, teachers compiled a list of who could connect to the internet at home, and who couldn’t. Now they know and can plan to help students without reliable connections.
Also, not every pandemic learning experience happened on computers. Wenz points to lessons that wouldn’t have been possible during the traditional school day.
"We're in agriculture, farming, ranching community, big time and you know, calving season was going on when this hit and so we had a lot of kiddos out there pulling calves," Wenz said.
Students were excited about what they’d learned outside of academics.
"These kids being able to work at home and work on the farm or, or even in town, go into their parents business and whatnot. They were learning things that they'll never get out of a textbook," Wenz said.
Wenz said he’ll integrate more practical skills in hunting, fishing and agriculture into the school day in the future.
Like Wenz, educators across the state think that school will be different than it was before COVID-19.
Montana’s Office of Public Instruction created two task forces composed of teachers, students and administrators. The groups will provide the state with recommendations for a post-pandemic education system. Some educators, like Teacher of the Yyear Linda Rost, are optimistic the pandemic will give rise to a better public school system.
"This is our chance to rethink that and kind of reimagine what school can look like and we we are already doing innovative and creative things in our classrooms, and this is just a time when we're gonna have to do that and probably just throw out a lot of the old ideas about what school looks like," Rost said.