Meadowlark Classroom

Empty desks and tables are sanitized and spaced at a classroom in Meadowlark Elementary School on July 21, 2020.

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Many parents pleaded with Bozeman school leaders Thursday to reopen schools five days a week while others supported the recommendation to bring students back to class just two days a week to avoid spreading COVID-19.

Bozeman School Board trustees heard from dozens of parents during a marathon online Zoom meeting, held over eight hours to outline the choices and hear concerns. At one point 960 members of the public were listening in.

School Board trustees made no decisions Thursday, voting instead 8-0 to decide at their regular meeting Monday night how to reopen schools and whether to delay the school start date for students.

School administrators said they’re considering delaying the start of school for students from Aug. 31 until Sept. 8. That would allow more time to train teachers in new teaching software and create more online lessons for students when instruction has to happen remotely.

Trustee Gary Lusin said he favors the “cohort” model that would open schools five days a week, and Trustees Wendy Tage and Andy Willett said they’re leaning toward that option, too. Trustee Tanya Reinhardt said she’s not completely sure but right now would probably vote for the two-day “blended” model.

Superintendent Bob Connors this week recommended the blended option for reopening schools that would have students learning into classrooms two days a week and learning from home by computer three days a week.

Connors argued there’s too much coronavirus spreading in Gallatin County to allow greater opening of schools, and that the blended model is the best way to “deliver quality instruction … safely.”

Yet many working parents protested that having kids in school just two days a week would leave them with no child care. Several also argued their kids suffered emotionally last spring when the virus outbreak forced Montana schools to close and families to isolate at home. Supporters of five-day-a-week in-person schooling pointed to a survey that found 85% of Bozeman parents wanted schools open full time.

Connors said he has been closely watching virus rates with help of the Gallatin City-County Health Department. At the end of July, the numbers were improving, and if they keep going down by the end of this month, Bozeman schools could consider jumping to the five-days-a-week in-school cohort model, he said. But he added that if the case numbers spike, schools may have to shut down and return to 100% remote learning.

One mother said her 7-year-old suffered depression, lost self-esteem and hated being at home when schools closed this spring, but at summer camp with other kids his confidence has shot back up.

“He is so happy being around people,” she said. How can the school district say it’s OK for high school athletes to play football, she asked, but it’s not OK for kids to be in class learning full time?

Jennifer Carruth supported the blended model as offering the best chance to avoid shutting down entirely.

“Hopefully there is short term discomfort for long-term gain,” she said.

Teachers weighed in on both sides. Katie McGeehan said the blended model would require teachers to teach student both in person and online, which means “doing our job twice.” But Chelsea Quinones said she was relieved by the blended model recommendation because it means half as many students in class, allowing them to spread out. She added she lives in Belgrade, where the schools plan to open five days a week, and said she’s hearing lots of parents there complain about that plan.

A nurse, Rita Bozorth, supported the cohort model, saying she wouldn’t feel her four children were safe at some else’s home while she’s working a 12-hour shift.

Trustees learned from Pat Strauss, human resources director, that 10% to 12% of teachers say they want to teach from home, but so far only 196 students have signed for remote learning. It would take 1,400 students to choose remote-only learning to accommodate all the teachers, he said. Aug. 19 is the deadline for students to sign up for 100% remote learning.

School Board Chair Sandy Wilson invited parents and the public to email their comments to trustees@bsd7.org.

Administrators outlined plans for everything from busing to special education. Schools will require all staff and students to wear masks and to require students to bring their own water bottles and schools supplies to avoid sharing. Marilyn King, deputy superintendent, emphasized that anyone who feels sick has to stay home. If someone in a class tests positive, the entire class could be required to quarantine for two weeks.

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.