Hyalite Elementary School

Fourth and fifth graders play on the equipment during recess on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020, at Hyalite Elementary School.

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Parents remain split over the best course for the Bozeman schools following the school board’s vote early Tuesday morning, with many stressing the importance of establishing guidelines for a move to five days of in-person learning.

Following more than seven hours of discussion and public comment, Bozeman School Board trustees voted to remain in the blended model of learning and set target dates for moving to full in-person learning at each school level.

In public comment that began Monday night and in conversations with the Chronicle, a mix of parents said they were frustrated with the board’s decision not to transition to five days of in-person learning while others applauded staying in the blended model until the targeted dates.

Consistently, parents seemed exhausted with the ongoing uncertainty and concerned over what the board-determined metrics would be.

“In a normal world, it is difficult enough to raise a child. You worry about them constantly,” said Rita Bozorth, a parent with two elementary-aged kids and two who aren’t in school. “We’re in unprecedented times, and we’re just so worried about their future. We as parents need some direction as to where our schools are going to go.”

The board set target dates for pre-kindergarten to fifth grades at Nov. 2; middle school at the start of the second trimester, or Nov 23; and high school at the beginning of the second semester, or Jan. 25.

The dates were based on timeframes provided by school principals and district administrators on when a transition could occur considering the different scheduling, staffing and student populations of each level.

After the board voted, Superintendent Bob Connors said the dates would help the schools direct planning resources and the district to determine enrollment numbers.

“A target date may also help us gather the registration data needed, that’s the big need on our end,” he said Monday night. “If we have a when, that’ll help gather that information.”

In response to a survey sent out last week to gauge possible registration numbers on a full return to in-person learning or 100% remote, many families said they were not comfortable responding without a timeframe on when the transition would occur, according to Marilyn King, deputy superintendent of instruction.

“This is a very difficult situation and, unfortunately, there hasn’t yet been a way for both sides of the issue to come to an agreement on the date, the metrics or the disease-threat itself,” said parent Emily Mason in an email to the Chronicle.

Sarah Rushing, a parent, said remote learning is hard for her kids, but she supported the board’s decision to remain in the blended model.

“This is an exceptional moment in American public health, and what it exposes is the failure of social programs to adequately provide for the stresses that working families face all the time,” she said.

Greg Gilpin, a parent to two children and spouse of a district teacher, said the current two days of in-person learning was not sustainable, with possible long-term consequences for families and students.

“There are physical, mental, social and emotional consequences of isolation and lack of in-person schooling. These should not be taken lightly,” he wrote in an email to the Chronicle.

Some parents, frustrated with the decision to continue in the blended model, created a Facebook event organizing a protest Wednesday afternoon in front of the Willson Auditorium.

Need for transition metrics

Before a transition at any school level could happen, it would need to meet board-approved metrics and pass a board vote. The metrics have not been outlined, but the trustees are scheduled to discuss them next week.

Monday’s public comment period, which drew input from parents for and against a return to in-person learning, also revealed frustration and concern with the board’s lack of established metrics.

Bozorth said she and others are frustrated that the district keeps having meetings without an approved criteria to consider for a transition to five days of in-person learning.

“I feel like it might be a tiny step in the right direction,” she said of the trustees’ vote on target transition dates. “However, they did not show up to that meeting with the proper information to make a decision.”

Kim Fauls, a parent with twin first graders, said she was frustrated children weren’t in school, especially with the challenges and repercussions many families face as a result of three-days of remote learning.

Rushing, a parent to a third, fifth and eighth grader, said clearer metrics and an understanding of the impact of the virus is important to determining when a return to school full time is possible.

“I think families, teachers and administrators need to have some framework for the transitions so that we can take room to breath, settle into the existing model and make appropriate plans,” said Claire Baker, a parent, in an email to the Chronicle.

Baker said it would be important for trustees to determine what metrics would be used to determine the achievement gap and student “well being” ahead of the target transition dates.

“What do we measure and how do we weigh these metrics,” she wrote. “And if the case is that our test scores are plummeting and our COVID cases are escalating, how do we make the right choice for our community?”

During the board discussion Monday night, Trustee Andy Willett, the lone vote against the motion, cautioned against COVID-19 being the only metric the board used to make a decision, saying the achievement gap and social emotional concerns should also be considered.

All of the trustees agreed on the importance of passing metrics that addressed the complexities of the situation as soon as possible.

Trustee Douglas Fischer said it was important to have “a framework the community can rely on.”

COVID-19 data

A few parents in emails to the Chronicle expressed concern over the rising number of virus cases in the last week and the possibility the district would have to transition to 100% remote before reaching the target dates if cases continued to rise.

During the board meeting, Steve Johnson, deputy superintendent of operations, said a caregiver with the Hawksnest Daycare tested positive for the virus over the weekend. All staff at the daycare had been told to quarantine for 14 days, and the program would close until Oct. 5. Johnson said there were 14 district staff who needed to find alternative daycare services due to the closure.

On Tuesday, the Gallatin City-County Health Department reported 21 new confirmed daily cases, with a cluster of cases at Montana State University still under investigation by the health department.

On Monday, people 10 to 19 years old made up 12 of the 26 new cases in Gallatin County reported that day, according to the state’s coronavirus task force data.

School board trustee Tanya Reinhardt said the COVID-19 data would be one of the metrics under consideration by the board but the trustees would also consider “intangibles,” like the students’ need for interaction.

“If it was just numbers, it would be an easy decision but its not and that’s where the challenges come into play,” she said.

Like many parents, Sara Callow said she was disappointed in the anger she’s seen throughout this process. While it’s understandable, she wished efforts were more focused on coming together to help those struggling.

Reinhardt said the concerns the board heard on both sides of the debate are valid, and all the trustees are listening.

“I don’t think we can have too much grace and kindness right now,” she said.

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