Nearly every school in Jefferson County has switched to remote learning through Thanksgiving, with targeted return dates of Nov. 30.
And with cases of COVID-19 rising rapidly — more than 70 added in the past week, with 84 active infections and five hospitalizations — the Public Health Department announced Monday it can no longer keep up with contact tracing and will restrict the process to household members and those in high risk groups.
Montana City, Clancy, Boulder, Basin and Whitehall elementary schools, as well as Whitehall middle and high schools, all made this decision based on COVID-19 cases or close contacts in the school.
Jefferson High School remains in person at this time, according to Superintendent Tim Norbeck.
Basin, with its 21 students, went remote on Nov. 5 due to what started as a close contact and then turned into an active COVID-19 case, said Supervising Teacher Stephanie Listoe, who reported that she was also in quarantine last week.
Listoe said the school could have resumed in-person instruction on Nov. 19 — the end of the 14-day quarantine period — but they already have remote learning on Friday, and with just two
days of school the next week due to Thanksgiving, it made sense to wait until Nov. 30.
Listoe said the majority of students have internet access, with about four to five using paper packets. She said that her staff won’t know the impact of those using the paper packets until they return on Nov. 30.
Boulder Elementary announced its intention to go remote on Nov. 11.
In a letter to parents, Superintendent and Principal Maria Pace said the switch to remote was due to a staff member testing positive, a person who had traveled between all of the school’s learning pods.
When it comes to being connected, Pace said the school has hotspots for families who needed the service through Montana Internet.
At Montana City School, which went fully remote on Nov. 10, some classrooms had already experienced the switch earlier this year due to COVID-19, so the transition to fully remote was eased by the staffers who had experienced it before, said K-2/6-8 Principal Daryl Mikesell.
As a result, the school was able to iron out any issues and share those findings with their colleagues, said Mikesell.
There were a few bumps in the road, such as passwords and accessibility, but nothing major that the school hasn’t been able to work through, said Mikesell.
The school did expand its inventory of jetpacks/mobile hotspots from 15 to 30 devices and those are being deployed, said Mikesell.
Montana City was alerted last week by the Jefferson County Public Health Department that there was a high potential for school-wide exposure.
Clancy Superintendent David Selvig said the transition to remote went smoothly.
“Staff have been preparing students for this possibility … We planned this summer to have equipment available if this situation arose. So we are one to one with devices from second through eighth grade,” he said.
During a Community Transition Advisory Committee meeting last week, Whitehall Superintendent Hannah Nieskens said her district opted to give parents a few days notice before going remote, which began Monday and with a Nov. 30 return date.
On that day, Nov. 12, Nieskens reported that 25% of her staff was either in isolation or quarantine, and 18% of on-site students were the same.
Those who have tested positive are put in isolation, while those who are close contacts, but not yet positive, are put into quarantine.
Nieskens said the situation at the schools puts to rest any question of whether COVID-19 is in Whitehall.
“It is for sure going around our community,” she said, adding that everyone she knows who has been tested has come up positive.
“We’re shutting down to let everyone get well,” said Nieskens, who was appointed to Governor-elect Greg Gianforte’s COVID-19 Task Force.
Reporter Bridget Weigel contributed to this report.