<p>Willow Creek (Mont.) School District J1517 has reopened, with safety precautions, and is offering bus service. Shown here is bus driver Chrystal Duvall, holding a pool noodle, which school staff use to demonstrate 6 feet for social distancing. Photo courtesy Willow Creek School District J1517</p>

WILLOW CREEK, Mont. — A small school district here opened its doors on Thursday and is offering bus service following the governor’s announcement that schools would be allowed to reopen and most parents saying they would like in-person learning to resume.

Willow Creek School District J1517 is normally attended by 56 students, Bonnie Lower, the district’s principal and superintendent, told School Bus Fleet.

The Bozeman Daily Chronicle reports that the school district is one of the first in the U.S. to reopen after COVID-19-related closures, and only one of a handful in the state to do so. Although most school boards in the state have chosen to stay closed, according to the newspaper, three other districts in Gallatin County will open again in the coming weeks, and in Park County Cooke City School, which has five students, has also reopened.

The district made the decision after polling families to see if they wanted it to open again, and after Gov. Steve Bullock announced that schools would be allowed to reopen on Thursday.

Willow Creek School District J1517 posted on its Facebook page on Wednesday that it decided to welcome students back for in-person instruction on Thursday after 76% of its students said they would choose to return to school if they could.

“Many parents of our students have expressed the desire for their children to be back in the classroom,” the district said in the post. “Many of our parents are essential workers and their children are often trying to do school on their own while their parents are working.”

The district added in the post that parents who do not want their child to go back to in-person instruction will be able to continue remote learning for the rest of the school year, and that support for remote learning is still available.

As a small, rural school with less than 10 students per classroom, the district said in the post, it is possible to adhere to guidelines from Bullock and the county health department.

Lower, the district’s principal and superintendent, told SBF that Willow Creek typically transports students with one Type A school bus, but is now also using its Type C bus so that the students can practice social distancing onboard. The district’s music teacher, who is also a certified school bus driver for neighboring Three Forks Schools, which is still closed, has pitched in to drive the second bus.

Students are directed to sit only at seats marked with tape, and only siblings can sit together. The two bus drivers, who wear masks, use pool noodles as a way to show students how far apart 6 feet is.

“Six feet is a lot further than you may think, and further than many of the kids think,” Lower said. “That’s why the pool noodle is a good visual guide.”

Pool noodles are also being used by teachers to help students practice effective social distancing, according to Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

The bus drivers are picking up and dropping off students at one stop, located in Three Forks, which is about 6 miles away from the school, Lower said. Students are driven by their parents to the stop. The bus drivers then take their temperatures with a no-touch thermometer, and if they don’t have a high temperature, they are given hand sanitizer and allowed to board the bus. If not, they are sent home with their parents.

Thankfully, the latter scenario hasn’t happened yet, Lower said.

Students load the bus back to front at the stop, and deboard front to back when they are dropped off at the school as another social distancing practice.

At school, in addition to teachers wearing masks, there are dot stickers in the classroom and on the playground to show students where they can sit and play.

“We have to follow these rules to make this work,” Lower said.

One of the bus drivers, Chrystal Duvall, told SBF that the most significant difference to her is that there are about half the students on her bus.

Overall, she added, following the new practices has been easy.

“It’s been working well so far,” she said.

About the author
Nicole Schlosser

Nicole Schlosser

Former Executive Editor

Nicole was an editor and writer for School Bus Fleet. She previously worked as an editor and writer for Metro Magazine, School Bus Fleet's sister publication.

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