Small Montana schools could be first to reopen after Covid-19 closures

Willow Creek School in Gallatin County, Montana, is expected to reopen Thursday.

(CNN)A one-teacher, one-room school in Montana may be among the nation's first to reopen -- as soon as Thursday -- after being closed due to Covid-19.

The Cohagen Elementary School, which has kindergarten through eighth grade, will open its doors that day to its 14 students, Garfield County School Superintendent Heather Gibson told CNN.
In Park County, Cooke City Elementary School will also offer on-site instruction to its six students beginning Thursday, according to Sharon Gregorich, the district clerk for the school district.
Other schools with fewer than 100 students each also plan to open soon, and they have come up with comprehensive plans to ensure student and teacher safety, local education officials said.
    Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said last month that the state's schools may reopen as soon as May 7, although it's up to the local districts to do so.
    Elsewhere around the country, most schools remain closed, and 46 states and Washington, DC, have ordered or recommended that they stay closed through the end of the academic year because of the ongoing Covid-19 crisis.
    For some of the Montana schools, the return will be short-lived, as the academic year ends later this month.
    Willow Creek School, which has between 50 and 60 students in grades K-12, also will be opening Thursday, according to Gallatin County Superintendent of Schools Matthew Henry.
    While Willow Creek is in Gallatin County, it doesn't fall under the county administration, and Henry said he was informed by the school's board that it "had voted unanimously to reopen and practice the social distancing guidelines."
    CNN has reached out to Willow Creek's superintendent for more details on what modifications they plan to have in place.
    Gallatin County had the highest confirmed number of Covid-19 cases in Montana counties, 146, with one death. The rest have recovered, and the county now has no active cases, according to the state's health department.

    'A comprehensive plan'

    Of the more than 1 million Covid-19 cases reported nationwide, Montana has had just 456, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Sixteen have died.
    Superintendent Gibson said she believes all 14 students, who come from four families, plan on coming back to Cohagen Elementary.
    "We came up with a comprehensive plan to ensure that distancing was going to be possible," Gibson told CNN. "It being only 14 kids, it makes it easy," she added.
    The school has two main rooms, a basement, and a separate gym room, so students can be in different areas to abide by social distancing rules. The school has no lunch program, and everyone brings their own lunch, according to Gibson.
    Because the students come from just four families, "it made it possible to maintain social distancing because the families that have been together can still be within six feet of each other," Gibson said.
    There have been no reported cases of Covid-19 in Garfield County, according to the state's health department.

    More opening soon

    Three other schools in Gallatin County are either reopening or finalizing plans to reopen.
    Springhill School (K-8) will partially reopen May 11. The board for Cottonwood School (K-5) is meeting Tuesday to finalize plans to partially reopen May 18, and Pass Creek School (K-8) will likely reopen, but a date has not yet been set, according to Henry.
    The three schools are in rural areas and had enrollment of 14 students each as of last October. They're planning on a "phased reopening," Henry said.
    Pupils will be divided into two groups, by age, according to the superintendent.
    "And those kids are going to alternate days that they come in. So it'll be half-day attendance," Henry said.
      In addition, they will take temperatures every day with a noncontact thermometer, abide by social distancing, do outdoor instruction as much as possible, and limit playground use.
      "Students who are considered vulnerable, at-risk population are given the option of attending or not, or if they reside with somebody in the household who's vulnerable ... or if parents don't feel comfortable, they're allowed to continue to remote off-site learning," Henry said.