MISSOULA — The topic of face coverings in schools has become a polarized discussion at school board meetings across the state as COVID-19 cases began to rise again this summer, mirroring surges from earlier in the pandemic.
Many Montana schools this fall returned to in-person instruction five days a week and loosened mitigation efforts, including the use of masks — despite the spike in cases and the emergence of the more contagious delta variant.
Others completely did away with alternative methods of instruction like remote learning.
For some families, the lack of both a masking requirement and online education left them with no other option than to home-school.
“I basically feel kind of left out in the cold since we don’t have options like we did last year,” said Robin Pleninger, a Ronan mother of two elementary-aged children whom she recently unenrolled from Ronan School District 30.
Pleninger began to worry for her children's safety during in-person learning after the district's school board approved Superintendent Mark Johnston's recommendation for optional masking in August, against guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Lake County Public Health.
The district also decided to halt online instruction.
Last year, Pleninger’s children learned remotely for a majority of the school year and returned in person in the spring during the fourth quarter, when community spread was significantly lower than it is today.
Wrestling to find a balance between her children’s education, health and social-emotional needs while working from home full-time herself, Pleninger ultimately decided in August to remove her children from the district and home-school them instead.
“I feel like I was forced (to home-school). I feel like I don’t want to go against the advice of my pediatrician and the health department. I feel strongly that these people know what they’re doing, they have so much more education in their specialties, I’m going to listen to (the experts),” Pleninger said in a recent interview with the Missoulian.
“I don’t want to be forced not to listen to them.”
No remote option
Superintendent Johnston’s decision to discontinue remote education was prompted by challenges the district experienced with remote learning, he said.
Throughout the pandemic, about a third of the district's students were completing their work, another third turned in some of their work, and the remaining third turned in nothing, he said.
During the 2020-2021 school year, students went to school four days a week, Johnston said. Fridays were reserved for teachers to focus on their remote students. A majority of students were enrolled in person, but the district did offer a remote option.
"Going into this year knowing that we had a high percentage of students that wanted to be back in school, we felt that it was best to just go strictly with the in-person learning,” he said this week.
Rather than using COVID-19 relief money to support online learning specialists for families like the Pleningers, Johnston felt that the money would be better spent addressing learning loss related to the pandemic, he said.
As a result, the district increased the number of tutors, paraprofessionals and janitors.
“We just didn’t feel like any online forum like that was going to be in the best interest of our students,” Johnston said. “As a parent, if you think that’s the best option for your kid, there are home-school programs out there that would offer that.”
'We're left out'
Finding home-school curriculum proved difficult, Pleninger said. Superintendent Johnston shared a web address with links to a variety of services, “but there wasn’t anything that was a good fit.”
Pleninger finally decided to use two different programs because she didn’t feel like they were enriching enough on their own. One program is $20 a month per child, the other is $12 a month per child — money that comes from her own pocket.
“These programs that we’ve purchased are very condensed," she said. "They take a lot less time to get through the material and we’re lacking any sort of contact to a teacher. If they have a question, I’m the one they ask.”
Pulling her children from school cut them off from other district-provided services as well.
“I strongly believe they should have offered an online option because we’re left out of services the district would normally provide, like speech service and school lunches,” Pleninger said. “We’re cut off from those services and it’s not our choice. I don’t think that it’s right they’re not accommodating me to send my kids to school safely.”
Benchmark testing during last school year showed that her children were moving forward and were not showing signs of learning loss while they were in a remote setting offered by the school, she said. When she sent her kids back in person in the spring, the transition went seamlessly because they were engaged in the same curriculum as their peers.
But Pleninger is worried that might not be the case this year because she's having to home-school on her own. She is not an educator, nor did she ever intend to home-school her children.
She's worried her kids might not end up meeting those benchmarks this year with the home-school curriculum.
Pleninger’s situation in Ronan is not unique. Andrew Clark, a semi-retired software developer in Polson, has found himself in a similar situation and is home-schooling his elementary-aged daughter and granddaughter this year.
The students would be enrolled at Cherry Valley School in Polson School District #23, which previously required masks.
There is no mask mandate this school year, although on Sept. 20, Superintendent Mike Cutler asked families and staff “to strongly consider wearing masks.”
Because Clark didn't want to send his kids to a school without a mask requirement, he has effectively become a full-time teacher for his daughter and granddaughter, using curriculum workbooks he was able to purchase locally as well as subscription science kits.
So far this school year there have been 128 confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 among district students and staff in Polson, and 13 of those are attributed to Cherry Valley School.
Clark would consider sending them both back to school when they have the opportunity to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, or if the district’s mask policy aligned with the CDC’s guidance, he said.
While CDC guidance on masks in schools has been clear — they should be required — messages from Montana state officials have bucked those recommendations.
In late August, as school boards across the state were in the thick of mask mandate debates, including some that had already passed requirements, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services issued an emergency rule that said districts “should consider” parental concerns related to mask mandates and that they “should provide” the opportunity to opt out of them.
As early as May, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen was recommending that districts end their mask mandates. In August, she co-signed a letter with Gov. Greg Gianforte urging superintendents and trustees to get "kids back into the classroom in as normal a setting as possible so they may learn, develop and grow."
Since then, Arntzen has spoken at school district mask policy protests in Billings and Helena.
At the Aug. 24 event in Billings, Arntzen was quoted by KTVQ as saying “equality of educational opportunity is guaranteed to each person of this state.”
“The superintendent’s quote came directly from our Montana Constitution," the Office of Public Instruction said in a statement to the Missoulian.
"The school doors have been shut to some students because there is no virtual option," the statement said. "Enrolled students in any Montana school district should be provided the options that best fulfill the full educational potential of each child including special needs students ... ”
The OPI recommended that districts use Congressional COVID Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) money to purchase digital learning opportunities “like other districts have done” in an effort to provide accommodations for families who may not feel comfortable sending their kids to school due to COVID-19 concerns. They mention the Montana Digital Academy as an option for middle school and high school aged children.
About 2,600 students in Montana transferred from public school to home-school settings during the 2020-2021 school year, according to OPI.
The DPHHS rule and Arntzen's recommendations ultimately still allow schools to require masks, as Missoula County Public Schools has done. The district could possibly provide a safe space for Pleninger's family, and others like her.
The Office of Public Instruction said new legislation, House Bill 246, allows students to attend a school nearest to their district that offers offsite instruction that agrees to enroll the child.
This school year MCPS is again offering the Missoula Online Academy, and about 220 K-12 students are enrolled, according to Principal Robyn Nuttall.
The online academy is funded largely through federal COVID-19 relief funds.
“There’s obviously still a need for some of our students to have a place where they can go if they have underlying medical conditions,” Nuttall said. “They either can’t get vaccinated or need to protect the people in their home who can’t get vaccinated.”
Pleninger hopes to find a better option for her kids than home-schooling them herself. While she hasn't contacted MCPS, she is aware that is a possible avenue she could look into. MCPS Superintendent Rob Watson suggested she reach out to the district.
Getting her children fully vaccinated could also help with that decision, as could COVID-19 mitigation strategies that were in line with recommendations from the CDC.
But for now, her Ronan district isn't offering that.
“I know these people care about my kids, they did an excellent job teaching my kids before all this hit," Pleninger said. "I want to go back there. I don’t want to burn bridges.”