Full reopening of schools delayed until at least Feb. 9

Sam Klomhaus – Enterprise Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Administrators at the Livingston School District Tuesday recommended East Side School, Sleeping Giant Middle School and Park High School stay with students on-site two days a week until at least Feb. 9.

The recommendation, given to the Livingston School District Board at its regular meeting Tuesday, was based on the district’s current COVID-19 metrics and uncertainty regarding the statewide mask mandate, which Gov. Gianforte has pledged to remove.

“The uncertainty with masks is causing a lot of trouble right now,” East Side School Principal Bob Stevenson said.

District staff aren’t making these decisions in a vacuum, Stevenson said.

The district’s current model for the three schools has students in class either Monday/Wednesday or Tuesday/Thursday, with the opportunity for students who are struggling to come in for extra help.

Washington School and Winans Elementary are at school in person four days a week.

Previously, the district had floated a plan of bringing third-graders back Jan. 11, and the rest of the students back Jan. 18.

Stevenson said before Christmas break his staff was confident they’d be able to pull that off, but things change quickly.

“We’re just not there yet, as much as we’d like to be there,” trustee Dan Vermillion said.

Stevenson said the schools going back to four days a week is contingent on the metrics the district already uses, including staffing levels, infection rates and the district’s mitigation measures. 

The reopening is also contingent on masks continuing to be work, Stevenson said.

Livingston School District Superintendent Don Viegut said there are COVID-19 positive cases every week in the district, but there has been virtually no spread within schools, which he credited to the district’s protocols, particularly the mask requirement.

“Masks are central to our ability to have spread contained for months on end in the school system,” Viegut said.

Wearing masks all day is sometimes difficult, so he appreciates district employees sustaining that effort, Viegut said.

If the mask mandate is lifted, he said, the district will work with legal counsel to maintain its position, which is that masks have been vital to sustaining schools.

Trustee George Bornemann asked Viegut if the district would still have local control over mask wearing if the mandate is rescinded at the state level, and Viegut said the district is waiting to see what exact language comes from the governor’s office.

“We want these schools to reopen, but we know if we don’t do it safely we’ll be shut down again,” Vermillion said.

Viegut said the district is in a relatively good position as far as resources, and will continue to put funding it gets to deal with the pandemic to good use.

Trustee Dann Babcox asked if that resource count included teachers, as a human resource, and Viegut said the district is still struggling with teacher numbers.

District Curriculum Director Todd Wester said the district is starting to see more staffing shortages because of COVID-19. Previously, he said, the shortages were usually contained to one school at a time.

Viegut mentioned Gov. Gianforte’s directive moving people age 70 and over and certain high-risk individuals ahead of teachers for priority getting the vaccine, saying it’s “tough to argue with,” although the district has very few people who fit those categories.

“As far as we know, we will be vaccinated late spring,” Viegut said. 

In other business, the board accepted the retirements of Business Manager Ellen Conley and longtime Park High history teacher Chris Bausch.

“I’m really sorry to see these folks go,” Babcox said.

There were two new COVID-19 cases at Park High Tuesday, according to the district’s online COVID-19 dashboard, which resulted in a large number of Park High students having to quarantine as close contacts. As of Tuesday afternoon, 37 Park High students were in quarantine because of COVID-19.