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The Bozeman School Board pulled back from its middle school reopening plan, citing staffing challenges as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to increase in the county.

During a special meeting Monday, the board voted unanimously to postpone the middle schools’ transition to five days of in-person learning, which was planned for Nov. 23. The board will reconsider the move in January.

During the meeting, the district’s deputy superintendents urged the board to postpone the move.

“This recommendation is not provided lightly,” said Marilyn King, deputy superintendent of instruction.

Casey Bertram, deputy superintendent of curriculum and technology, said staffing challenges were a key factor in the administration’s recommendation. He said the district is experiencing significant daily staffing challenges.

A move to five days of in-person learning for the middle schools would intensify those challenges, particularly in the special education programs, according to the recommendation made by the deputy superintendents.

Steve Johnson, deputy superintendent of operations, said they understood the blended model — two days of in-person and three remote — wasn’t working for everyone and there were significant social emotional needs that weren’t being met.

“However we also understand we’re going to have staff and students and even whole schools that will have to move in and out of the remote learning model,” Johnson said.

The district continues to struggle to find substitute teachers and paraprofessionals as more staff members need to quarantine. Last week, the district averaged 67 adult staff and 455 students in quarantine and isolation due to COVID-19, according to its weekly tracker.

Earlier this month, the district called for people to apply to be substitutes, saying it had about half of the available subs it would normally have in a year.

“We are working hard to keep our schools open during this pandemic but may reach a point where COVID cases affecting our staff increase to the point we cannot provide enough substitutes,” officials wrote in a notice on the school district’s website.

During the board discussion, trustees spoke in favor of keeping the middle schools in the blended model — with students attending classes in person two days a week — and thanked teachers, administrators and central office for all of their work.

“I think it’s the right thing to do,” Trustee Gary Lusin said. “It still allows us to be flexible and do what we need to do when we need to do it.”

About a dozen parents, teachers and paraprofessionals in the district also spoke in support of the administration’s recommendation. Roughly 335 people watched the virtual Zoom meeting.

Valeria Long, who has a child at Sacajawea Middle School, said as much as her child needs to be back in a five-day program, she knew this is what the district needed to do. She said she supported their decision.

Many of the people making public comment raised the question of whether elementary schools should continue with five days of in-person learning. Pre-kindergarten to fifth grades transitioned out of the blended model on Nov. 2.

A music teacher in the district said it felt like the elementary schools have “been a guinea pig” in this process.

Elizabeth Lange, a retired teacher with 35 years of experience, said the elementary school teachers she knows are exhausted and “at a breaking point.”

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.