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Unity needed on school reopening plans

| July 5, 2020 9:26 AM

An email detailing Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen’s plan for reopening schools hit the Daily Inter Lake inbox around noon on Thursday. Less than an hour later, the Governor’s Office released its own, separate guidelines.

It was a head-scratching moment. Which plan are we supposed to reference? Did Gov. Steve Bullock’s office and the Office of Public Instruction — literally three city blocks apart in Helena — not meet with each other about the best approach to getting kids back in the classroom safely amid an ongoing and surging pandemic?

Apparently not.

According to an Associated Press report, Bullock said he hadn’t seen Arntzen’s final plan and Office of Public Instruction spokesman Dylan Klapmeier said that his office was “seeing the Governor’s document for the first time.”

Clearly, the government’s left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing - and it’s the public who’s left out to dry.

At his press conference Thursday, Bullock said school officials should consider multiple sources, including the two state plans and local public health officials, when deciding the best way to reopen.

Arntzen, meanwhile, told the AP that school administrators have been calling for a unified plan, and that she prioritizes creating a single resource for schools to reference as they plan to reopen.

We side with Arntzen on this one. These are uncertain times, and one well-considered game plan for how to navigate the reopening of our schools would best serve the local administrators and school boards tasked with making these tough decisions.

Families, too, crave clarity — especially households with two working parents. Childcare, or the lack thereof, will be a pressing issue for these families if school resumes at reduced capacity — a scenario considered in both Bullock and Arntzen’s guidelines. It’s difficult to plan ahead without clear guidance, and the clock is ticking down to the start of the school year.

For Bullock’s part, we do appreciate the light-handed approach his office is taking. His guiding document is not a “directive saying this is what you must do,” he told reporters Thursday.

Some districts will need to reopen slower than others, based upon virus trends and other community factors. What’s good for the Flathead might not be the same for more rural parts of the state.

We also appreciate that both Bullock and Arntzen’s plans emphasize getting kids back in the classroom, safely. While remote learning sufficed in a pinch during the stay-at-home order, it’s certainly not ideal for students or parents. The two guidelines lay out important recommendations for keeping schools sanitized, how to navigate typically congested places like hallways, cafeterias and playgrounds, and processes to follow if a student or staff member has to quarantine.

Both Bullock and Arntzen’s plans contain useful information — it’s just unfortunate it wasn’t delivered with a unified voice.

And while this lack of collaboration from Helena has to be frustrating for our local administrators and school boards, we remain confident they can sort though these recommendations to provide our students with the safest, most sensible approach to returning to the classroom in the fall.