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Trust Local School Leaders, a State Chief Says as Optional Reopening Date Nears

By Andrew Ujifusa — May 05, 2020 4 min read
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State education leaders are fond of saying they represent strong “local control” states where school board members and other district officials have significant power. But the phrase has an especially timely meaning for Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, a Republican who was elected in 2016.

That’s because Montana districts shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic can decide to resume in-person classes and other activities on May 7, under an order last month from Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, which made Montana the first state under a shutdown to give schools a specific calendar day for an optional reopening.

In one case a decision to reopen is on an even smaller scale that the district: A small elementary school in the Willow Creek, Mont., district has said it will reopen for in-person classes on May 7; the school will be among the first in the U.S. to reopen after shutting down, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.

So how is Arntzen, a former teacher and Montana state lawmaker, thinking about that reopening day, and what is she talking to school districts about?

In an interview with Education Week, the state superintendent said she’s trying to give school district officials relevant advice: Get to know county health department officials you may not have relationships with yet. Think about how you can adapt all aspects of your operations to what you and your parents want. “Link arms” with the important education groups, from unions to state superintendents’ groups. And make sure core messages about what resources are available and what’s important remain consistent.

“It’s so important that there is a unified voice in a pandemic,” Arntzen said. She also is putting together a “Montana Learn” task force designed to help schools think through when and how to reopen.

But Arntzen said she is not issuing any blanket recommendations or leaning on districts to make any particular decision, and she doesn’t believe a pandemic can be “regulated” by federal or state officials. She doesn’t plan to send state observers to monitor or check in on schools that may reopen on May 7.

“How they open schools and how learning takes place is up to them,” she said.

‘It’s Not Make-Up Learning’

There hasn’t been a rush of Montana districts looking to reopen May 7. And a recent, very unscientific online poll posted by her office found the vast majority of respondents were against the reopening of school buildings, even though the impact of the virus on the state has been relatively small in terms of confirmed cases and deaths.

The state has issued guidance on how to conduct activities like graduation, as well as considerations for schools when they reopen on issues such as social distancing, limits on class sizes, and hygiene.

Arntzen didn’t directly criticize Bullock’s initial order to close schools, but did say her office needed clarification from the governor about what it meant exacly. Otherwise, one general message Arntzen has is that while learning conditions are challenging across Montana districts, many of which are small and rural, “Learning is still going to continue. And it’s not make-up learning. ... You don’t have to have a student sitting in a chair.”

In that vein, she’s also keen to hold up individual instances of where districts are being creative on several fronts. For example, one district, she said, held a virtual track meet. Another will hold a graduation ceremony outside for 16 graduating seniors. She’s also interested to see what districts give individual parents the option of continuing remote learning or sending their children to school buildings

And she says she’s been getting ideas from neighboring states like Wyoming and Idaho—where a private school just reopened—about how, over the long term, the state should rethink things like its accountability system. Like all states, Montana received a waiver from giving federally mandated exams this spring, but Arntzen wouldn’t be unhappy if those tests never had to come back.

Accountability for local schools “should not be governed by Congress, nor should it be mandated” through an assessment, she told me; that’s a job for local school boards. But she does think federal lawmakers should help out states like hers by providing, for example, more resources to help students connect to the internet through the E-Rate program.

One of the major longer-term concerns that the pandemic has underscored is the teaching workforce in Montana. Arntzen was preoccupied with having enough teachers, and she is thinking that a not-insignificant number of teachers might decide to move on from the profession in the next several months.

And with recent federal coronavirus aid money for schools, which Arntzen said is larger for Montana than the state’s typical allotment of Title I money in a given year, she’s thinking about how it could be put to use for a variety of needs, from special education to student nutrition.

But again and again, Arntzen returned to the idea that she’s there to help districts, not tell them what to do, even during the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus.

“We don’t put the state first. We put local control first,” she said.

Photo: Elsie Arntzen, who was elected Montana superintendent for public instruction 2016, speaks at a public forum in 2014 in Kalispell, Mont. (Patrick Cote/Daily Inter Lake)

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