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Schools credit preventive measures for keeping doors open

by CHRIS PETERSON
Editor | March 3, 2021 6:35 AM

While schools across the country are just now contemplating returning to in-person classes, Columbia Falls schools credit good public health practices as the key strategy for staying open this year during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The mitigation factors we put in place at the beginning of the year kept Covid from spreading through the school,” Glacier Gateway Elementary School principal Penni Anello said. She said the students have been very receptive to wearing masks as well as the parents.

“If we tell (students) to wear a mask, they wear a mask,” she noted. “I haven’t had one parent complain about mitigation.”

If a student doesn’t have a mask, the school has plenty of them to give away. Anello credited teamwork between parents, staff and students for the success. “Our parents have been

wonderful,” she said. Ruder Elementary principal Brenda Krueger said there has been the same response at that school.

She said the school board and administration made the right move to reopen schools fully last fall.

“I’m glad we opened the doors all the way,” she said.

But it’s just not masks that have kept schools open. Each school has taken other precautions. Every child is screened for a fever before entering the school each day and each school has a dedicated person that cleans classrooms when students are out.

For example, if they go to recess, the class is cleaned behind them.

The schools also did away with shared water fountains. Students now have their own reusable water bottles — donated by Glacier Bank.

Parent Carla Fisher has a daughter at Glacier Gateway and she said she appreciated the efforts of the schools.

“It’s been extremely important,” she said. “I can’t overstate the importance.” She said not only does in-person teaching help her run her business, it’s also important to her that her child has interactions not only with classmates, but with adults.

Fisher and her husband Darin own Backslope Brewing. They could have jockeyed schedules to have remote learning, but “the fact that we haven’t had to be home has made it much easier to continue working.”

Fisher said she also feels her child is safe at school, even though she’s been quarantined once.

“I feel like we’re not taking an excessive risk,”

she said.

Outside of a couple of cases at Ruder early in the school year, there has been little, if any, evidence of children spreading coronavirus to each other or staff.

That’s not to say that the schools haven’t had any cases — they have. Both Ruder and Gateway have had 16 confirmed cases in students and 18 staff at Gateway and seven at Ruder have had the illness.

But the student numbers represent just 3.33% of the population getting the disease.

Districtwide, there have been 103 student cases and 42 staff cases. The staffers have much higher infection rates at 14.69% while students overall just 4.9% or 103 total to date. More than half of those were at the high school.

But there’s still plenty of measures to take. Teachers are considered 1(c) candidates for the vaccine. They should be eligible for shots in a couple of weeks, Gov. Greg Gianforte predicted last week.

Superintendent Dave Wick said it’s too early to say when the schools would lift the mask mandate. He said the school will adhere to the directives of public health officials, but vaccinating teachers is a big part of that equation.