Ever since the coronavirus pandemic stopped in-person learning in schools across the country in March 2020, teachers and administrators have had to learn how to navigate a new landscape of education while still effectively teaching students. Montana City School is no exception, and teachers and administrators there have begun this school year armed with lessons learned from the pandemic so far.

Superintendent Tony Kloker said that figuring out distance learning in the spring of 2020 was the school's greatest challenge, but even so, teachers still spent most of that spring and summer diligently preparing for the 2020-21 school year.

"We were able to improve our ability to provide distance learning as teachers adapted well to utilizing technology," he said.

Daryl Mikesell, the principal for kindergarten through second grade and grades six through eight, said that the school's distance learning ran smoothly last year, a feat he said can be "solely attributed to the staff and the infrastructure they built through Google Classroom and Google Meet."

In the 2020-21 school year, Montana City School was among many that returned to offering in-person instruction, with changes to keep students safe. Masks were required for students and teachers in the building at all times, and classes were separated into "cohorts," so students would be exposed to only one group while at school. That way, if a student was exposed to or tested positive for the coronavirus, the school could more easily conduct contact tracing to identify others who may need to quarantine or be tested.

In addition, the school maintained its online learning infrastructure for kids learning at home, ensuring that their education would have as few interruptions as possible. This year, Montana City School is sticking with in-person learning and continues to keep an emphasis on technology for students learning remotely.

Candy Sorenson, an administrative assistant at Montana City School, said there were pros and cons to how the school ran last year. A benefit, she said, was that the cohorts made each class like a family.

"Teachers attended recess with their students and got to watch them play, which is a huge part of the students' personalities. Classes stayed together all day," she said. 

However, Sorenson said, there was also a fear caused by the pandemic and its uncertainty, and not being able to see smiling faces "truly affected the energy of the school."

Also, Sorenson said, teachers didn't get many breaks during the day, something that Kloker also noted. He said that worker burnout resulted in 10 employees leaving after the 2020-21 school year.

Mikesell said the school administration developed a program for this school year designed to help make the school day as positive as possible not only for students, but for staff too. Named "The Hands of Leadership," the initiative emphasizes the importance of being a leader amongst leaders, he said.

"Administration makes it a priority to have conversations with staff daily, asking how their positive energy is, how we can support them, what are the 'little extra' [things] they have been doing to make our school a better place, are there others that are committed to supporting them, and if there are any details that administration needs to be aware of," he said.

Going into this year, Kloker said, one challenge is to help students who slipped below grade level because of pandemic interruptions.

"Students struggled with the inability to interact at full capacity," he said, explaining that not being able to learn in person and interact with as many people not only affected students academically, but also socially and emotionally.

"We always knew relationships [and] having a rapport with students and a positive environment were important," Mikesell said, "but COVID brought the importance to the surface. Going into this year, we have placed our primary emphasis on creating a positive and upbeat environment while working to build connections with every child in the classroom setting." 

While the school staff are still doing what they can, including sanitizing and social distancing, to keep the doors open and students safe from the pandemic, there are some changes from last year that may help improve the social and emotional health of students at school. For example, while the school is still separating classes into cohorts this year, the school found ways for students to safely socialize with those in other classrooms so they can build friendships, feel connected and want to come to school each day, according to Mikesell.

Another change, according to Stephanie Heggen, a library specialist at the school, is that all her students get to come to the library this year. "This is really a big step because the students really need to get back to a little bit more of a 'normal' education," she said.

One of the biggest changes for this school year was that masks went from required to optional. School policies are determined at the board level, according to Kloker. He said there was more than an hour of public comment on the topic when the board was deciding its mask policy for this school year. After taking comments, the school board chose to make masks optional while monitoring cases specific to the school. A significant outbreak of cases in the county or within the school could make masks mandatory again, according to school policy and Kloker.

Overall, the biggest lesson the school administration and staff learned last year, they said, was that in-person learning is what works best for them and their students.

"Students learn best at school," Heggen said. "Online schooling can help, but it is no match for students being in the actual classroom setting."

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