Grace and Peace! I hope this message finds your family well and enjoying this beautiful time of year in Montana. We have been working hard at Stillwater this summer and are looking forward to having everyone back on campus on September 9! I want to give a special welcome to our new parents and students–we are delighted to have you join the Stillwater family.
I am writing not only to provide you an update on our policies and plan to safely reopen and operate but also to welcome you to the 2020-21 school year. While the COVID-19 pandemic necessitates changes in procedures and policies, our mission, vision, values, and commitment to providing an excellent Christian education remain the same. I want to warn you that this is a long email with much information. I hope you will read it in its entirety and take the time to provide feedback using the form we’ve provided.
For the last three years, we have chosen a school theme and corresponding Bible verse to guide our spiritual focus for the year including chapel services, staff devotions, and various Bible studies. The school theme also serves as a rallying cry through which we remind and encourage each other to live well in Christian community.
This year’s school theme is “Be Strong and Courageous.” It comes from the first chapter of Joshua 1 where the Lord tells Joshua three times in nine verses to be strong and courageous in preparation for entering the promised land. It was no doubt a challenging time for Joshua and the Israelites as they eyed the hostile territory across the Jordan; I’m guessing there was a good deal of fear and discouragement. But the reminder to them from the Lord our God was this: be strong and courageous; hold fast to my promises; and remember that I am always with you.
Theme verse: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” ~ Joshua 1:9
May God use this verse and the story of Joshua and the Israelites to encourage and strengthen us this year as we face the challenges before us.
As I’ve communicated in previous reopening updates, our plan is to have all Stillwater students on campus for in person learning every school day starting September 9. While we will be prepared to provide remote learning, we will not shift to that instructional platform unless it becomes absolutely necessary due to a COVID-related situation. In order to have a successful school year, we will all need to work together to ensure the health and safety of our community. I’m thankful for the ways we’ve done so since March, tackling challenges and identifying solutions together. Thank you to those who served on our Reopening Task Force this summer and to the health professionals who have provided guidance and feedback throughout the planning process.
The protocols we are aligning around as we approach reopening have been established in accordance with guidelines issued by health agencies such as the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics and are consistent with those being adopted by schools across our valley, state, nation, and world. They are the product of much thought, prayer, research, due diligence, and collaboration with health experts and others in our community and state over the past several weeks, including meetings with area superintendents and the leaders of our Health Department and hospital. We are trying to do this with a humble spirit seeking godly wisdom in every particular. We cannot ignore the reality of a growing case count in the Flathead Valley and take seriously our duty to take all reasonable precautions to keep everyone on campus healthy and safe.
I recognize that some of the protocols contained in these documents, especially on issues like face coverings and social distancing, engender strong emotional responses. Whether you think these protocols are too much or not enough, I hope you will fully and prayerfully support our efforts to keep our campus open this year so we can serve our students where we know they learn best—at school!
The following policies are part of an overall risk mitigation—not elimination—strategy that we believe will help us to stay healthy and keep our school open. In executing these protocols we will need to be flexible based on changes to the situation and applicable guidelines/directives from health agencies and government authorities. These protocols are based on the assumption that we will remain in Phase 2 with active cases in the Flathead Valley during the first several weeks of school. Our hope and prayer is of course that the situation improves such that we can return to a greater degree of normalcy as soon as possible.
Through appropriate health screening at home and at school, SCS will work to ensure that only healthy individuals are on campus. All parents will be required to sign a waiver of liability and health screening agreement, through which they will agree to conduct daily temperature and symptom checks for symptoms associated with COVID-19. SCS will also conduct routine temperature checks to ensure the health of all students and employees on campus.
Arrival and Dismissal
Unless part of the before care program, student arrival will occur between 7:45 and the start of school at designated locations based upon grade. Upon arrival, for purposes of keeping students in smaller cohorts, students will report directly to their main or first period classroom, where they will be free to work on homework, projects, or other school-related items under the supervision of their teacher until school starts. Those who arrive after school begins will have to check-in at designated locations.
Parents who need to retrieve students from school prior to dismissal must contact the appropriate school office to coordinate. At dismissal, all students who are not scheduled for extra instruction (EI), an athletic practice/competition, or enrolled in the aftercare program will be required to leave campus. Departure will be staggered according to the following schedule to minimize crowding and traffic:
- 2:50: Preschool/Kindergarten
- 3:00: 1st – 4th Grade; High School
- 3:10: 5th – 8th Grade
Under normal circumstances, we are always glad to welcome parents as frequent guests in our classrooms and at our events and activities. During Phase 1 and 2, we will ask parents to limit their visits to campus. Preschool and Kindergarten parents (one parent only), wearing a face covering, will be permitted to drop their child off at the classroom door. With the teacher’s permission, on a limited basis, parents may visit or volunteer in classrooms but will need to wear a face covering at all times and go through a health-screening prior.
The SCS campus will be used for mission-essential purposes only. We will not rent the facility or allow outside groups to use it while in Phase 1 and 2. In Phase 3, non mission-essential campus use will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
Facilities and Sanitation
All classrooms will be equipped with hand sanitizer, disinfectant spray, wipes, and paper towels. Hand sanitizing stations will also be placed at entryways and other key locations. Most K-6 classrooms have been equipped with sinks for hand-washing. Teachers and staff will ensure that all persons on campus wash their hands frequently and thoroughly throughout the school day.
Common areas will be cleaned and sanitized by janitorial staff throughout the day. Evening janitorial staff will clean and disinfect the whole facility. Classroom doors, as well as non-fire hallway doors, will be kept open as much as possible to allow ventilation and airflow. Activities will occur outdoors where possible to mitigate risk.
The CDC and health authorities generally recommend the use of face coverings to mitigate (not prevent) the spread of disease. Students and staff will therefore have the option of wearing them at all times for their own and others’ safety. If we remain in Phase 2 and there are 4+ active cases in Flathead County, students in grades 5-12 and employees will likely be asked to wear face coverings at certain times: transition from one location to another, group/lab work, arrival/departure; basically whenever they are moving about among others away from their desks.
In addition, we will follow government directives applicable to private schools that have the force of law. The Governor’s office may issue a supplemental directive on face coverings in August directed towards schools. If so, it is our understanding that it will give schools flexibility in this choice, but we won’t know that until we see it. What I want to reiterate now is that SCS will fully support different parent/student choices on this in an attempt to honor, love, and defer to each other well this year.
All classrooms will be arranged to allow the most efficient and effective use of space with a goal of providing the greatest degree of physical distancing possible. Our enrollment numbers and classroom additions/renovations, which expanded our square footage, will help us mitigate risk through social distancing in the classroom. Through scheduling and classroom placement, we are also striving to minimize mixing of class cohorts to the greatest degree possible.
Students will sit in assigned seats. Junior High and High School students with more than one class in the same classroom will, to the extent practicable, sit in the same seat for each class.
Students in grades 5-12 will have access to lockers at alternating times to avoid crowding.
Lunch and Eating
Self-service food and beverage distribution in our hot lunch program will be discontinued; instead, meals, utensils, and napkins will be served/distributed by kitchen staff. To accommodate social distancing, some classes and students will eat in the cafeteria or lobby and some will eat in their classrooms. Cafeteria seating will be arranged such that students don’t face each other. Water fountains will be available for bottle filling only. Students must bring their own water bottles, labeled with their name. Microwaves will be redistributed into classrooms and/or to designated locations by grade level with regular disinfecting and sanitation.
Policies for When Someone Tests Positive for COVID-19
When SCS is made aware of a positive case, we will report it to the Health Department, which will already be aware of it from local test facilities. They will provide guidance on actions we may need to take, including steps for mitigation and communication to those at risk for exposure. If a student or employee tests positive for COVID-19, he or she must self-quarantine for up to 14 days. If a student or employee is exposed–defined as being within six feet of the person for more than 15 minutes–to a person who tests positive for COVID-19, the student or employee may be excluded from the school campus and advised to self-quarantine for 14 days.
Athletics and P.E.
As I stated in my June update, we recognize the importance of our fine arts and athletics programs to the health and well-being of our students and the culture of SCS and wish to continue them to the greatest extent practicable. Recently the Montana High School Association (MHSA) announced that fall sports are a go in Montana, but with new guidelines to ensure the safety of student athletes. We are studying those guidelines and have been communicating and will continue to communicate with parents and athletes regarding the unique requirements of athletics participation and spectating during the COVID-19 pandemic. We will continue with P.E. instruction, which will occur outdoors unless the weather forbids it. Parents who wish to opt out of P.E. for their children may do so.
We will also continue to provide students with excellent opportunities in the fine arts. Elementary music students and K-12 visual arts students will be issued kits providing them with individual supplies and instruments thus minimizing the need to share. Our music room has been reconfigured, including removal of the stage, to provide more room for band and choir students to spread out and social distance. Because both band and choir are considered higher risk activities due to transmissions associated with forced air exhalation, students in those classes will, in addition to social distancing, use specialized coverings over their mouths or the ends of their instruments to mitigate risk. Art instruction will continue per normal with limited sharing of art supplies; students will be issued individual art kits.
Prior to attending school on September 9, parents of all students must provide SCS documentation of required immunizations or appropriate exemptions. Documentation must meet the criteria of the Administrative Rules of Montana. If you have questions, please call the main office.
More Information to Come
I realize I haven’t touched on everything in this email. Many of these things are moving targets but I’ve tried to provide as much clarity as possible regarding the issues that I know families are discussing around their dinner tables right now. In mid August, I will send another update which will include more detailed plans and greater clarity on reopening related matters such as open house, chapel, high school retreat, the house program, back-to-school events, etc. At that time, we will share our formal Health and Safety Plan, the COVID addendums to our handbooks, and the Waiver of Liability and Health Screening Agreement that we are asking all parents and guardians to sign.
There is much to be excited about as we start the 2020-21 school year. We have hired excellent new teachers to support our move to two sections per grade in grades Kindergarten through 10th grade. We have added four new classrooms to our secondary building which will house “Intermediate School” (Grades 5 and 6). We have expanded and refurbished several classrooms in the elementary building and added a classroom to our preschool. We have expanded our cafeteria. We have refurbished our gymnasium and completed the new weight room project. The timing of these projects—all in the works pre-COVID-19 and all funded by giving and grants—is providential in a year of COVID-19.
In September, we mark 40 years of serving students and families in the Flathead Valley. While circumstances will not enable us to have our 40th Anniversary Gala Auction on September 26, we are considering other ways to appropriately celebrate our birthday in September and throughout the year. In the meantime, let us all give thanks for this milestone and pray that God will continue to bless this work that he started through 22 dedicated parents in 1980 and has sustained since then.
As we begin our next forty years, we do so with a new look. I’m excited about our logo refresh and new website and hope that you are as well. Later this month, I will share our updated SCS21 goals document, which outlines priority goals for our strategic plan implementation for the upcoming year.
As I conclude this long communication, I want to say a huge THANK YOU to the many people who have been working tirelessly behind the scenes to help us prepare for and be successful during an extraordinary school year. We have amazing people at SCS. Thank you especially to the leadership team, office staff, and maintenance team for your extensive work this summer. Thank you to our teachers, coaches, and aides who are leaning into the challenges that await. Thank you to our supportive Board of Directors and parent community. Thank you to our donors who’ve generously invested in what God is doing at SCS. And thank you to our students—we love them and can’t wait to have them back on campus in September.
In addition to Joshua 1, Paul’s message to the Ephesians in Chapters 4 and 5 has been on my heart lately. In these chapters, Paul hammers the theme of unity in the body of Christ. He reminds the Ephesians that they are to live out their calling “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace,” and encourages them to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” I’m saddened by the degree to which the various debates that are raging in our world today have brought discord and disunity. Let us all seek the strength and courage that are required to do what Paul calls us to in this coming year remembering that the Lord our God is with us wherever we go.