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Bozeman School Board trustees are leaning toward having students return to school five days a week this fall, rather than learning in school two days and at home three days a week, as the superintendent recommended in the face of high coronavirus cases.

At the end of a Zoom meeting Thursday that stretched more than eight hours, a clear majority of the eight School Board trustees said they’ll likely vote Monday night to reopen schools five days a week.

At various times 300 to 900 people tuned in to the online School Board discussion. About three dozen spoke, and roughly three times as many parents urged the five-day-a-week option over the two-day option. Hundreds emailed comments to the trustees.

“I’m leaning toward the cohort model,” which would return students to school five days a week, said Trustee Gary Lusin.

Lusin said it might make sense to use two models, and have elementary kids in school five days a week, but for grades six through 12 use the “blended” model, which would have students in school two days and at home, learning by computer, three days a week.

“We need to teach kids,” stated Trustee Andy Willett, saying he leans toward the five-day cohort model. Kids need the mentors, good nutrition and stability that schools offer, Willett said. Bozeman students are already going to have a learning gap and kids’ reading skills already need improvement.

“I’m willing to take that risk, willing to take the risk of a spike, maybe a risk of quarantining, and maybe going (back to) full remote” if virus cases spike, he said. “Kids going every day to school — I think that’s where most folks want us to be.”

Trustee Greg Neil said the five-day model makes sense to him, though his mind isn’t closed. Trustee Kevin Black said he’d probably prefer the five-day plan because schools give learning opportunities that kids are missing when classrooms are closed.

Trustee Tanya Reinhardt was the only trustee who said if she had to vote right then, she’d probably choose the two-day blended plan.

Trustee Wendy Tage said one problem with the blended model is it promotes “the greatest disparity” between have and have-not students, learning at home online. She said it would hurt students not to be in front of teachers.

Board Chair Sandy Wilson said she was “on the fence” and open to the idea of using one model for elementary schools and another for older students.

Trustee Douglas Fischer said he felt frustrated that this country and community didn’t do the hard work needed to control the virus.

“My wrath here is bipartisan, but it starts at the top,” Fischer said. “Why are bars and restaurants open in this town when we’re considering closing three-fifths of the week? Why is MSU bringing in 15,000 students from hot spots — Arizona, Texas, California — without quarantining or proof of negative COVID tests?

“This blended option would be ridiculously hard on families,” Fischer said.

Belgrade schools decided to open five days a week, but Bozeman is going to be hit harder when MSU students return, Fischer predicted. He added that one Belgrade trustee voted from quarantine because his daughter has the virus, and he was amazed at how fast the virus spread through her friends.

Bozeman School Superintendent Bob Connors said his recommendation had changed this summer from the five-day cohort school option to the less risky two-day blended option when virus cases spiked.

Connors proposed that the schools could switch back to having all students in classrooms five days a week when Gallatin County’s rate of positive virus tests fell to 3% for seven days. Since July 22 to 29, the rate fell from a seven-day average of 8% down to 4% and 5%. But if it zoomed back up to 10%, Connors said he’d recommend sending kids home and returning to 100% remote learning.

A staff survey found 37% of teachers and employees favored the two-day blended model, 24% preferred the five-day cohort model, 21% wanted all-remote learning and 18% wanted a full traditional school opening. About 53 teachers said they’d be worried about their own health if they had to return to classrooms. Pat Strauss, human resources director, said for that many teachers to teach from home, there’d have to be 1,400 kids learning from home, but so far fewer than 200 had signed up to do so.

A parent survey found 85% wanted kids back in school five days a week, though several people argued the survey question was poorly worded and didn’t take safety into account.

Casey Bertram, deputy superintendent for curriculum, recommended moving the start date for students from Aug. 31 to after Labor Day, Sept. 8, to allow more time for training teachers, especially on a new software system to support online teaching. In March, when schools first closed, teachers had five days to prepare to teach online, but they’d have only three days to train before Aug. 31, he said.

One teacher told trustees it had been “a virtual hell” for her last spring, staying up until 2 a.m. every night trying to prepare new online lessons and reply to students, while also caring for her own children.

During public comment, some parents said their children suffered depression and lost energy and self esteem when isolated at home for months, and argued kids need to see friends and teachers. One mother asked why it’s OK for football players to be practicing, but not OK for children in be in classrooms.

Reinhardt expressed surprise that while school administrators are worried about trying to control aerosols from tuba players, right now the Montana High School Association is allowing football players to practice — which means sweating and breathing heavily.

“I am furious with the MHSA,” Tage said.

Michelle Kirsch, assistant manager of patient safety at Bozeman Health hospital, said people are going to continue to spread the virus, and the schools can expect 14-day quarantining, because people aren’t socially distancing outside of school. Schools can’t prevent that, so should just focus on providing a quality education. The risk of bad outcomes for students and most teachers is extremely low, she said.

Monday night’s School Board meeting begins at 5:45 p.m. will be carried online via Zoom.

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