"To the Best of Our Ability"

an interview with Superintendent Greg Upham 

July 21, 2020 | by rebecca stewart

Ahead of the July 20, 2020 Billings Public Schools Board Meeting, Simply Local Magazine was able to talk with Superintendent Greg Upham about plans for the 2020-’21 school year, or rather, the back to school plans. As we spoke, there was a common thread pulling throughout the entirety of our conversation, in these unprecedented times where there are no definitively right answers, we will move forward and operate as safely as possible “to the best of our ability.”

Looking forward to the start of the school year, Superintendent Upham is recommending two methods of instruction:

1. Traditional- with as close to a normal school day as possible, controlling the variables that can be controlled.

  • Egress/Ingress Lunchtimes, Recesses, and Instruction in the classroom.
  • Practicing physical distancing and masking.
  • Principals will be asked to cohort their groups, to the best of their ability.

“Meaning, we’re going to stay in the same groups…We will encourage outdoor instruction and activity. I am going to send a memo to our principals to work with their teachers to maximize the space within their classrooms.”

  • Transportation- Superintendent Upham shares that with busing, they’ll strive for social distancing, having members of the same household sit together, with a goal of one student per seat, alternately. He adds, “We can do that in some cases, in some cases we can’t. We’ll do everything we possibly can.”

By keeping the school day as normal as possible, Superintendent Upham explains that this “helps everyone with the variables. They understand where they go, they understand what they do. In the high school, when we have the Career Center, and we have students exchanging back and forth, if you alter that system, you could compromise the learning.” From a psychological standpoint, he believes that people will feel better the closer they can be to their norm. Referencing a hybrid option that would have students in and out of the building on a staggered schedule, Superintendent Upham explains that he firmly believes disrupting the entire system serves only to create more anxiety, particularly when you consider that the schools have no control what happens beyond their 8am-3pm schedule [students who aren’t together during the day, might well hang out after school or be co-mingled during sports practice, for example].  

2. Remote- where students are online.

  • The district is in the process of identifying a remote administrator.
  • From there, the district will work to place their staff with COVID-related issues into the remote instruction, “to the best of our ability.”

Superintendent Upham acknowledges that “there will be parameters that will present challenges. [The] number of students per section, number of licensed teachers…We can do it, but we’re going to try to provide a standalone remote instructional package for staff and students that have COVID-related issues first, and then from there, work to meet the choice of parents and students, to the best of our ability.”

Looking Back to Move Forward

Though he’s spoken frequently about why it’s important to the district to provide in-person instruction this fall, Superintendent Upham didn’t balk at taking us through the key points. 

Directing our attention back to the end of the 2019-’20 school year, he first reflects on the significantly lower percentage of child abuse cases, noting that doesn’t mean there weren’t cases occurring. Second, the social-emotional piece, the lack of connectivity, the anxiety and stress added to individuals as a result. Finally, they found, regarding academics, with the isolation and closures, “our students didn’t do as well.”

Superintendent Upham estimates that 30% of School District 2 students were not engaged at a level that allowed them to grow during those final months of school. He adds that some were completely disengaged, while a large majority “held their own, but what we have to recognize is that we don’t hold our own, we improve.” A small percentage of students excelled who thrived as independent learners. Additionally, “it’s hard learning from a computer. And so, we just found it affirmed that live instruction, with the interaction of people is what works for students and staff. 

As we talked more about the challenges that surfaced during the spring of 2020, Superintendent Upham, shares that the district found doing traditional instruction with remote instruction to be exhaustive. Citing reports of teachers being online at 5 or 6 in the morning and again/still at 10 or 11 at night, trying to accommodate parents’ work schedules. Keeping in mind that this was a major undertaking – completely shifting teaching methods – in a short amount of time.

Back to School 2020

 As we come into this new school year, masks will certainly be the norm. When asked if there are plans in place for the schools to include “mask breaks” throughout the day to help reduce fatigue, Superintendent Upham responds with an immediate, “Absolutely. We’ll probably look to build up the time, too.” Outdoor instruction will also be key, as this “will be a governing principle to use as much outside activity and instruction as we can.”  

A call to action from the community- He adds that face coverings or masking is something that we need to do community-wide, noting its effectiveness in conjunction with physical distancing and hand-hygiene. By doing these things in schools and throughout the community, he says, “We can function as normal as possible, and we need to. I can’t emphasize enough that face-covering is a very effective strategy for controlling the source.

In anticipation of being back in the school buildings, work regarding air filtration was being addressed right at the beginning of summer. The district is working to mitigate any areas that have compromised or little to no air, and to maximize the amount of air circulation in the buildings. 

The Importance of Not Operating from a Place of Fear

In an interview with Q2 on July 13, 2020 for their Rebound Montana series, Superintendent Upham noted the importance of not operating from a place of fear when we return to school. We asked him to elaborate on that sentiment for families/students and teachers. He says,

“I think one is to accept it. We have to accept that we can’t control the pandemic. That face covering, physical distancing, and hygiene works, and they work well. It’s okay to feel apprehensive, it’s normal; and to work through those issues, process them, and talk with people.” He emphasizes, “It’s not gonna go away, and I think we need to say that aloud. It’s not. We have to deal with it, we have to work together with it, and we can do this!

In terms of coping with and addressing our fears regarding back to school, he points out that “We’re going to open up in a very restrictive mode, which means, minimize people in and out. We’re not going to do field trips, we’re not going to do assemblies. We’re just going to kind of settle in, and I’m going to give teachers permission to emotionally settle in too. The learning will come, all right, but how about let’s just take a breath, and let’s just get really good at what we need to do as far as the virus is concerned, and then we’ll worry about the learning later. We’ll just take our time, give ourselves permission to just take a breath and worry about the emotional piece first.”  


Upon going to Billings Public Schools district website, parents are immediately invited to complete an anonymous survey regarding Remote Learning Options for Fall 2020. 


For more student specific questions please contact Dr.Chris Olszewski at olszewskic@billingsschools.org.

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