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Bozeman school leaders are working hard to get kids back into classrooms when this school year starts — learning face to face with their teachers and together with their friends — despite a surge in coronavirus cases.

Some of the nation’s largest school districts are opting for online-only instruction. But Bozeman educators hope they can pull off a back-to-school start that doesn’t mean just back-to-screens.

In many ways it’s a no-win situation for Superintendent Bob Connors, head of the 7,100-student Bozeman School District. Parents share their strong and often opposing opinions.

“We get it from both sides – ‘How dare you go back!’ and ‘How dare you not go back!’” Connors said.

“We want to be socially responsible, and look at what’s best for Bozeman, best for our staff’s health and students’ health. If we go back to the in-person instructional model, there are risks. We want to be sure we’re not jeopardizing someone’s life. That’s a heavy weight.”

Connors made a significant decision last week when he announced that students and teachers will be wearing face masks when school starts Aug. 31.

Masks plus social distancing are “optimal for reducing spread of COVID-19 in schools,” the Bozeman school plan says.

America’s public schools are under a lot of pressure to reopen. President Donald Trump has threatened to withhold federal funds if schools don’t bring children back to their classrooms — to help working parents, help the economy and help his reelection.

Big city districts from Seattle and Los Angeles to Houston and Atlanta have decided their kids won’t start the school year with face-to-face instruction because the largely airborne virus is spreading out of control.

Yet the American Academy of Pediatrics has joined with two big teachers unions and a school superintendents association to urge a safe return to schools this fall.

Children learn best in the classroom, they learn social and emotional skills, get healthy meals and exercise, mental health support, school lunches, access to the internet and services for kids with disabilities, the groups said, adding that schools help reduce racial and social inequality. They called on Congress to provide more money to ensure schools can open safely.

In Bozeman, a survey taken by some 4,000 parents found 85% want schools to reopen.

At the same time, Gallatin County has seen its coronavirus cases more than quadruple from only 151 on June 1 to 758 this week.

The upswing began after June 1, when Gov. Steve Bullock moved Montana into phase two of the state reopening plan, allowing restaurants, bars, gyms and other gathering places to open to more people. Gallatin County has consistently had Montana’s highest or second highest case numbers.

“My children miss their friends, they miss sports, they miss their teachers and they feel like they don’t have anything to look forward to,” one mother wrote on the Chronicle’s Facebook page.

“I want my son to start kindergarten,” another mother wrote, “but I’d rather not put him in a place where he can easily contract a potentially deadly and very infectious virus.”

So Bozeman school officials and many parents want schools to open. Can they do it safely? And how?

Four options

All summer Bozeman school administrators and teachers have been scrambling to come up with plans so schools can reopen to kids on Aug. 31, the first day of school for students.

They’ve been working from a draft plan that outlines four scenarios. Connors intends to choose one scenario on Aug. 7, and bring the plan to School Board trustees on Aug. 10.

Yet even that plan could change before the first day of school, depending on the latest data on virus cases, and decisions by the governor and the Gallatin City-County Health Department.

“Right now we’re looking at four options,” Connors said.

One option is teaching classes 100% online, as happened after spring break, when the governor closed Montana schools March 16.

The second option is teaching classes 100% in person, like in the good old days before March 16.

Third is a “blended” option of in-person and remote instruction, with students in school two days a week and learning from home three days a week. There would be only 10 to 15 students in a classroom.

What school administrators are really focusing is the fourth option, Connors said, a “cohort” model. It would give students 100% face-to-face instruction, and allow all students to be at school at the same time, while limiting the number of interactions between kids during the school day to limit virus’s spread.

Social distancing would be “encouraged as feasible.” Seating charts would be required for all students.

Elementary classes would let kids from two classrooms interact at lunch or recess, or up to 50 students. That would the governor’s phase two guidelines that allow groups of up to 50 people.

Middle and high school students would have block schedules. Instead of students attending seven class periods per day of nearly an hour each, classes would be about 90 minutes long and schedules spread out over two days.

Periods one and two would meet Monday morning, periods five and seven in the afternoon. Periods three and four would be meet Tuesday morning, with periods six and eight in the afternoon. The eighth period could be used for advisories, support for struggling students or academic opportunities. The schedule would cut down on kids passing en masse in the hallways half a dozen times a day.

One change would be greater emphasis on online or remote learning for basic instruction, while in-person learning would be focused more on classroom discussions, student-teacher connections, testing, working with students who need help and enrichment.

To make in-person instruction possible, cloth face coverings or masks will be required for all staff and students in pre-kindergarten to grade 12, Connors said. Exceptions will be considered based on individual needs, such as students with disabilities, and based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and American Academy of Pediatrics.

Clear face masks will be used by staff in pre-kindergarten to second-grade classrooms to help children with language and vocabulary development, in speech language classes and other special education settings.

Parents will be asked to provide face masks for kids and school supply bins to keep school supplies for each student separate.

There would be greater emphasis on hand-washing and sanitizing surfaces. Each classroom would have hand sanitizers. Drinking fountains would be turned off. Plexiglas screens will be put up at main entrances.

Any students who come down sick would be sent to the office, isolated and evaluated. Students with COVID symptoms would be required to be tested for the virus.

School buses would still serve students who live three miles or farther from school as called for in state law, but the requirement to distance students on buses means only half as many kids can ride each bus. So many students who are used to riding the bus won’t be able to, especially those who live closer than three miles, and parents will have to find other ways for kids to get to school.

There will always be an option for students to learn 100% from home, Connors said, for those parents who aren’t comfortable sending their children to school. Assignments are going to be “ramped up,” he said, and some online lessons will be taught in real time, so students will check in with their teachers.

“I have faith everybody is going to step up and deliver the quality education Bozeman is known for, whether it’s off-site or in-person instruction,” Connors said. “It might be different than people are used to. But it’s going to be quality.”

Life lessons

School districts elsewhere are taking different approaches.

In New York, most students will be in class two or three days a week, with classes limited to nine to 12 students, USA Today reported.

In Chicago, 50% of students will attend school on any day, students will be divided into “pods” of 15 children to minimize exposure, and students will be required to wear masks.

In Europe, several countries that have reopened their schools with class sizes limited to a maximum cohort of 10 to 15 students, the New York Times reported.

Seattle Public Schools last week scrapped plans to bring students back into school buildings this fall on alternate days, after an upswing in virus cases and pressure from the teachers union, the Seattle Times reported. Superintendent Denise Juneau recommended school begin with remote instruction only.

The Centers for Disease Control’s guidelines for schools recommend that students break into “small, in-person” groups that can stick together with the same teacher and not mix with other groups. CDC recommends distancing students on school buses and distancing classroom seats and desks “at least 6 feet apart when feasible.”

Putting desks 6 feet apart would likely cut drastically the number of Bozeman students who could fit in each classroom, and force schools to use the “blended” part-time in-school, part-time at-home option.

The problem with the blended option, Connors said, is that teachers would then have to come up with both in-person and online lessons. And working parents would have to find day care for three days a week.

Some teachers might have to be dedicated to just teaching online. That could work at the elementary level, he said, but not in high school, where teachers must have specific credentials in areas like math and Advanced Placement to teach the subject.

Asked if Bozeman students would be screened with temperature guns as they enter school, Connors said that’s still being discussed with Rebecca Spear, the district nurse. One problem is that kids’ temperatures can fluctuate during the day.

For school lunches, Bozeman schools plan to offer students grab-and-go sack lunches, rather than have them stand in cafeteria lines. Students could eat in large spaces like gyms, he said.

Bozeman students have likely lost ground academically because their schools had to switch suddenly last spring to teaching online, but Connors said all American students have missed the same amount of schooling.

“If we’re going to compare them in standardized testing, they’ve lost ground,” he said. “If we’re going to look at the life experiences scale, they’re way ahead.

“They’ve had to deal with disappointment … had to learn to adapt,” he said.

Some students lost their senior year, sports seasons, prom, and the chance to finish the school year with their friends. But they’ve learned, he said, to “work through disappointment and go on to the next day.”

“Our kids have life lessons they wouldn’t have had.”

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