Kalispell schools battle staffing shortages and continue in-person learning

On Tuesday, January 11, Smith Valley School in Batavia announced that staffing shortages due to rising COVID-19 cases were forcing the school to close for the remainder of the week, the first school closure linked to the new year pandemic.

Meanwhile, Kalispell Public Schools (KPS) Superintendent Micah Hill has dispelled rumors circulating this week that administrators are preparing to issue a district-wide temporary closure and move to learning at distance.

In an interview with the Beacon, Hill addressed the misinformation spreading on social media, while emphasizing that the district is prepared for any scenario given the fluidity of the pandemic.

“After being remote two years ago and expecting last year that our staff would be ready to go remote at very short notice, we should be ready to transition if we have to,” Hill said Tuesday.

In the interview, and speaking at Tuesday’s school board meeting, Hill said the district is struggling with staffing shortages due to seasonal illnesses, COVID-19 and other factors, and that strategic discussions about temporary closures are necessary when buildings cannot fill enough vacancies to operate effectively.

On Jan. 11, Hill reported that there were 82 absent staff members across the district and there was an 82% vacancy fill rate, leaving the district short by about 15 staff.

“What do other companies do when they get to this rate? They will reduce service hours, but we don’t have that luxury,” Hill said. “Either we are open or we are not.”

Hill said staff are doing a commendable job of covering for each other, citing an example at Elrod Elementary that day when some teachers doubled classes to make up for four instructor absences.

“The big question is how sustainable is this if we continue to experience these kinds of absences?” said Hill. “Do you see it from a district perspective or from an individual building perspective? This is what we struggle with.

While staffing concerns are the main driver of conversations about whether to keep schools open, Hill also said districtwide average daily attendance rates have hovered around 90% for a large part of the school year, below the typical rate of almost 94 to 95%.

“Those are pretty big numbers,” Hill said. “If you reach 10%, for a school of 1,500 children, that makes 150 children for seven different classes. It really has an impact on the staff and our students.

This number is likely to take a hit with the wave of Omicron variant cases in the Flathead. KPS operates three COVID-19 testing clinics through a state grant and in the first week of January the clinics had a 25% positivity rate. Between Monday and Tuesday of this week, the rate jumped to almost 32%.

“It’s been really tough and I don’t know if I see the light at the end of the tunnel today,” Hill said. “But we haven’t closed yet, and that’s the last thing we want to do.”