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One State Polls the Public on Whether to Reopen Schools


When making big decisions about when to shut down in-person instruction, how long to do so, and when to reopen, states have to weigh a lot of factors. But as Montana tries to make that tough call during the coronavirus pandemic, it's relying in part on an old-fashioned method: a poll. 

On the Montana Office of Public Instruction's website, there's a section where you can vote on whether Montana public schools should reopen this academic year, or stay closed until the fall. Right now, Montana has ordered its school buildings to close until at least April 24. The state, which does not have a huge number of confirmed coronavirus cases, is working on a phased reopening; Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, indicated that officials would try to come up with a plan for that reopening some time this week.

The Trump administration released guidelines late last week to help states gradually reopen, although in the first phase of those guidelines, school buildings that have been shut down would remain closed. But states still have a hard call to make about whether to reopen schools this academic year, or potentially in the fall. And even if they do, there are logistical challenges to overcome and concerns from both educators and families to consider.

So how much would an online survey help a state with tough choices? We reached out to the Montana Office of Public Instruction for more information about this poll. Here's what a spokesperson, Dylan Klapmeier, told us about it in an email:

  • The state posted the poll on April 17 and plans to keep it up "indefinitely," according to Klapmeier.
  • When we asked if there was any way the state could ensure that only Montanans were voting in the poll, Klapmeier said the state has no way to do that. "But our page audience is almost entirely Montanans, we don't have much of a national audience on Facebook as we do with Twitter," Klapmeier added.
  • Klapmeier stressed the state is gathering opinions from parents, teachers, students, and others such as health officials in mulling its decision about about reopening schools. "While we won't be making any decisions purely based on this poll, we will consider the results as part of our overall portfolio of public comments on the topic," Klapmeier wrote. 
  • And what about results so far? Klapmeier reported Monday afternoon that 2,300 people had voted to reopen schools this year and 5,300 people had voted to keep schools closed until the fall.

As of Monday, the majority of states had decided to either order or recommend that public schools cancel in-person instruction for the rest of the 2019-20 school year. 

Photo: Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, speaks at the National Press Club in Washington in 2019. Bullock is trying to come up with a phased reopening of his state during the coronavirus pandemic, and schools will be an importantpart of any such plan. 

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