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With Montana’s public schools closed for a fifth week because of the coronavirus pandemic, the state’s schools chief is recommending that schools stick with distance learning through the end of this school year, rather than bring students and teachers back into their classrooms, and that traditional graduation ceremonies be canceled.

The leader of Bozeman’s 7,000-student school district is taking a wait-and-see approach.

Bob Connors, Bozeman school district superintendent, said Monday he’s not ready to make a recommendation for the rest of this school year.

Connors said he’s still discussing options with superintendents of Montana’s other large, AA school districts, his Bozeman school administrators and Matt Kelley, Gallatin City-County Health officer.

Alluding to the late boxing great Muhammad Ali, Connors told school board trustees Monday, “We’re trying to float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. … Sometimes you do have to rope-a-dope.”

One idea under discussion is different forms graduation might take — possibly a students-only affair, with more than 400 students, but not the couple thousand family members who usually gather in the fieldhouse at Montana State University. Another idea would be some kind of virtual graduation.

Bozeman is a hotspot for the virus in Montana, with Gallatin County accounting for about one third of confirmed cases in the state. And Bozeman High, with about 2,300 students, is the largest high school in the state.

Elsie Arntzen, Montana’s superintendent of the office of public instruction, sent out guidance to school districts last week, signed by her and leaders of the state’s major education groups, from the Montana Board of Public Education to the School Administrators of Montana, Montana School Boards Association and state teachers union.

Arntzen’s message said that while Gov. Steve Bullock has issued emergency stay-at-home orders in two-week time frames, based on advice from public health officials, many school leaders “would like additional certainty in planning the rest of your academic calendar.”

“At this time, national health authorities are stating that social distancing recommendations will be in place at least through May and possibly into the summer,” Arntzen wrote. Even if the governor’s “stay at home” and “school closure” directives are lifted after April 24, she wrote, social distancing guidelines likely will still be recommended.

“Therefore, we advise that you plan to continue your distance learning plans through the remainder of this school year and also plan to not hold large-scale, in-person graduation ceremonies,” she wrote. “We encourage you to postpone graduation ceremonies until later in the year or come up with alternative plans to honor your graduates, ensuring equity in recognition for all students, including special education students.”

If the governor lifts the school closure order and stay-at-home order before the end of the school year, local school districts are welcome to proceed however they like — reopening schools or sticking with distance learning, because Montana is a local-control state, said Dylan Klapmeier, OPI spokesman.

“However, we cannot imagine a scenario where social distancing will not be recommended or required in the months of May, June, or even further into the summer, making traditional graduation ceremonies and traditional moves back into classrooms unlikely,” Klapmeier wrote.

Public health officials are urging the people to follow social distancing by staying at least 6 feet away from others and avoiding groups of more than 10 to prevent spread of the virus.

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at or 582-2633.