HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen on Thursday issued separate, uncoordinated plans advising public schools how to safely reopen during the fall.
Montana plans to resume in-school classes this fall despite a resurgence of confirmed coronavirus cases. The two sets of guidelines are meant to help prepare school districts across Montana to do that while keeping the transmission of the virus in check.
The governor’s plan presents three different phases of reopening, which correlate with the state’s coronavirus reopening plan. The superintendent’s plan provides four different scenarios for school buildings in the fall, ranging from full closure to full reopening.
The two plans were released half an hour apart from each other on Thursday. Bullock said he hadn't seen Arntzen's final plan and Office of Public Instruction spokesman Dylan Klapmeier said that his office “is seeing the Governor’s document for the first time."
Bullock, a Democrat, said during a news conference that school officials should consider multiple sources, including the two state plans and local public health officials, when deciding the best way to reopen.
“It’s not our plan that what we’ve proposed or what we’ve rolled out today is a directive saying this is what you must do,” he said.
Arntzen said in an interview that school administrators have been calling for a unified plan, and that she was “slighted” by the decision not to include her in the governor’s plan.
A representative of the Bullock administration participated in the planning process for the Office of Public Instruction document, but a similar courtesy was not offered to her office for Bullock's plan, Arntzen said.
“If he had brought us to his table and had shared with us in a very transparent matter what he was doing, we could have had one unified document going out to our schools,” she said.
School superintendents in the state’s six largest districts either declined to comment on the plans or were not in the office ahead of the holiday weekend.
Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, who is running for governor and hoping to replace Bullock when he terms out of office in the fall, said the administration is encouraging people to look at “the many resources that are out there.”
“The Office of Public Instruction’s plan is obviously one that we encourage people to look at,” he said.
However, Arntzen said she prioritizes creating a single resource for schools to use as they plan to reopen.
“We wanted to make sure that one unified voice would be going out to school, so there would not be a disequilibrium of guidance going out,” she said.
She said she plans to merge the two guidance documents and issue a combined resource that will be available on the Office of Public Instruction website.
Arntzen said she believed the governor’s decision to issue his own plan was political.
“There was no discussion, no transparency,” she said. “That should never happen.”
Gov. Bullocks' communications director Marissa Perry said in response that the effort to safely reopen schools “is not a competition.”
“Our focus is on making sure that kids can go back to school safely in the fall and we are pleased that Montana schools will have comprehensive guidance from many sources to help make the best decisions for their students,” Perry said.
Iris Samuels is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.