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Melissa Romano, right, meets with Mark Lainer, a high school math teacher who is working remotely from Roosevelt School during the COVID-19 pandemic. Romano is running as a Democratic candidate for superintendent of public instruction for Montana. (Photo: SKYLAR RISPENS/GREAT FALLS TRIBUNE)

As school districts across the state of Montana reckon with the challenges posed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Great Falls Public Schools is no exception.

Since schools reopened in late August GFPS has faced COVID-19 positive individuals in schools across the district that led to the temporary closure of Great Falls High early last week and a ransomware attack on the network. In addition to those challenges, the remote education side of the district is trying to find its footing as well. 

Last week, Democratic candidate of superintendent of public instruction Melissa Romano visited GFPS and met with district administrators, students and remote educators to gain a better understanding of public education in Great Falls.

“I really wanted to walk away with an understanding of some things that teachers are doing,” Romano said while reflecting on the experience. 

Her tour of the district brought her together with administrators at the district offices to discuss the challenges and successes of GFPS, which included the district’s pre-k school and stress among teachers. Romano said that COVID-19 was a large topic of discussion, particularly concerns and worry about the safety of students and staff.

At Great Falls High, Romano visited a government class to hear about their experiences navigating changes due to COVID-19 as well as answer any questions the students threw her way. 

“I was really interested in hearing their perspective about what they would want policymakers to know about their experiences in school,” said Romano. “They had really great questions, they asked about my platform and why I was running. That was a really fun experience.” 

Romano then spent time speaking with remote educators with the district based out of the Roosevelt Elementary building. Roosevelt Elementary serves as the district’s remote education hub where teachers work from during the school week. 

She met with teachers in elementary education as well as middle school and high school level educators and asked them questions about how the year was going and if how they felt they were being supported while navigating a most challenging year. 

On the elementary level, educators told Romano about the challenges of navigating large virtual classroom sizes, most teachers said they had over 100 students, some said they are responsible for over 120 students. 

“Well, today, this week, we’ve been trying to recover from our network being down, part of that has been to individually contact families,” said Kelsey Lowry, an instructional coach at Morningside Elementary and a 6th grade teacher for remote education. 

A classroom that used to house students and teachers now functions as an office for remote teachers to work from. Lowry shares a classroom with three other educators. 

Romano asked about what teachers have noticed in terms of the mental health and well being of their students. The teachers, including Lowry, indicated that they feel that their students are “quite stressed” in virtual settings, and they suspect that students in traditional classroom settings may begin showing signs of stress and anxiety. 

“I think students that are back at school were very happy, and even calm, these past few weeks, and we’re starting to see a few things pop up,” said Lowry. In addition to remote education, Lowry still works in her school as an instructional coach part time. 

At the middle school level, educators spoke with Romano about the challenges associated with preparing for the school year in such uncertain times as well as technological challenges associated with remote education. 

They told Romano about the different ways they’ve utilized technology to teach students, including recording lessons on video and offering office hours to students over Zoom who may need additional support in their studies. 

Mike Lainer expressed to Romano that the remote education center set up constructed by the district at Roosevelt Elementary has allowed teachers to be more collaborative when it comes to problem solving for virtual classrooms. 

“(Teachers) talked about their own personal stress and challenges of working longer hours, not necessarily knowing what to do in certain situations and having to really rely on colleagues for support,” said Romano reflecting on the conversations. 

She said that she hopes that educators are continuing to get the support they need. 

“Every teacher I talked to is so worried about their kids,” said Romano. “I’m not sure that they stop and think about their own mental health and I really wanted to just check in on them as well and let them know that they are doing a good job.” 

Skylar Rispens reports on education and breaking news for the Great Falls Tribune. To contact her with comments or story ideas please email her at [email protected] To support coverage of education in Great Falls subscribe today for a special offer.

Follow her on Twitter @skylar_rispens or on Facebook at Skylar Rispens.

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