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WILLOW CREEK — One by one, students began filing into Willow Creek School on Thursday morning.

The first arrivals came at 7:31 a.m., as four students were dropped off at the K-12 school. Teachers welcomed them with a familiar “Good morning.” But what wasn’t familiar were teachers wearing masks, temperature checks upon students’ entrance and the pool noodles that teachers gripped to demonstrate how far 6 feet really is.

As one of the first schools in the United States to reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic, Willow Creek carried on after nearly two months of being closed and resorting to remote learning.

“We’re ready to get back to normal,” Willow Creek superintendent and principal Bonnie Lower said. “As normal as we can.”

Schools across the state had been closed since March 16, following Gov. Steve Bullock’s directive, due to the pandemic. When the stay-at-home order was lifted on April 26, Bullock announced public schools would be allowed to reopen Thursday. Most individual school boards, though, have chosen to remain closed through the end of the school year.

Willow Creek, which normally has 56 students in its two-story schoolhouse southwest of Three Forks, was the only district in Gallatin County to open Thursday. Three of the 15 others — Springhill, Cottonwood and Pass Creek — are planning to open in the coming weeks and the remaining 12 have closed for the summer. In Park County, Cooke City School, with its five students, was the only school to open. None opened in Madison or Jefferson counties.

As of Thursday afternoon, there were two confirmed active cases of COVID-19 in Gallatin County.

Teachers and students planned to take precautions in regard to the virus, but Lower said they were excited to return to a routine after nearly two months away.

“The teachers get some closure. The students get closure,” Lower said.

During the shutdown, Willow Creek polled parents and 76% wanted the school to open if it could, Lower said. With teachers in agreement, she brought that number to the school board, which also approved. Kids deserve to finish the year, Lower said of the school board’s sentiment.

Lower “didn’t wrestle with (that decision) very much at all.” Since parents have faced the challenge of working from home with their children around, Lower felt their desire to have the school reopen.

“Some of them have multiple children in school, and they’re trying to do their work,” Lower said. “It was just very, very difficult. And I believe that the parents are confident that we’re going to take good care of their kids.”

The first bus rolled down Main Street, stopped at the school at 7:40 a.m., and let off a handful students. The second bus dropped five more off a few minutes later as a rooster crowed nearby.

Bus drivers and teachers wore face masks, which is recommended as part of the first phase of Bullock’s reopening plan when 6 feet of space cannot be established. Most students weren’t wearing masks, which Lower said is parents’ decision.

Reporters and videographers from national outlets such as CNN and Good Morning America scurried around capturing details and footage of students and teachers.

Matthew Henry, Gallatin County superintendent of schools, is glad Bullock left the decision to reopen to each individual school board. Schools with smaller enrollments may have a better chance to “avoid gathering in groups of more than 10 people in circumstances that do not readily allow for appropriate physical distancing,” as outlined in Bullock’s first phase.

Springhill, Cottonwood and Pass Creek schools all each had an enrollment of 14 students as of this past October. Springhill is reopening May 11, Cottonwood’s board of trustees has a plan to reopen May 18 at the earliest and Pass Creek is likely to reopen but hasn’t yet set a date, Henry said.

“I think (schools are) really doing the best to accommodate it and still realizing that there’s risk out there,” Henry added. “I think the parents realize it’s a risk, but it’s a risk they’re willing to take for their kids’ education.”

At the school’s playground, staff members painted markings to designate how students can safely stand 6 feet from each other. Lower said students will have input in what games they can play at recess as long as guidelines are followed. Willow Creek alternated its bell schedule to avoid having all its students in hallways at once, emphasized disinfecting surfaces and put extra hand sanitizer and wipes in classrooms.

Teachers also have 6-foot pool noodles to demonstrate physical distancing to students and measure how far desks should be from each other. Earlier this week, Lower told the Associated Press, “We are going to live and die by the noodle.” On Thursday, she praised the lightweight tool as an easy way to “make sure everything is kosher.”

Lower believes the trouble of implementing those extra precautions is worth it. Though there’s only three weeks remaining in the school year, she said having in-person classes will allow students to socialize and serve as a learning experience.

“We actually will figure out what this looks like right now,” Lower said. “So coming into the fall, if we still have this as a norm, we’re ready. We don’t have to miss instruction time right off the get-go to make this happen.”

At 7:56 a.m., the first bell rang. Four minutes later, the second bell rang. The doors underneath the yellow “Willow Creek Public School” sign swung shut.

A teacher returned outside to welcome three stragglers who walked in just barely late with backpacks slung from their shoulders.

Then the doors closed again, reporters scattered and the school day began just like normal. Or as normal as it could.

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Paul Schwedelson can be reached at or 406-582-2670. Follow him on Twitter @pschweds.