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Facing a rising number of coronavirus cases, Bozeman’s school leaders have decided that Bozeman students will return to in-person classes just two days a week, not five as originally hoped, when school begins Aug. 31.

Superintendent Bob Connors released a video announcement to parents Monday, saying that two days a week in school will allow students to develop social and emotional connections that are important to quality instruction.

Students whose last names begin with the letters A through L will attend class in person Mondays and Tuesdays, while learning from home Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

Students with M through Z last names will attend class in person Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays will be used for teacher preparation, working with struggling students and deep cleaning.

Connors said school administrators had thought back in May and early June, when Gallatin County’s virus numbers were low, that they’d be able to reopen schools five days a week with the “cohort model.”

“Things were looking really good, almost to the point we’d be back to a normal school day,” Connors said.

“Everything in July just exploded,” he said in an interview.

“We’re relying on data, input from out health partners, input from parents. We’re not going to make everybody happy. The data shows this is a way we can start walking back into school.”

If the school district had tried to jump right into five day a week in-person instruction, there’s a good chance it would have backfired and forced schools to close completely, he said.

This decision is going to cause parents some problems with babysitting and child care, Connors said, adding he hoped that having the information a month ahead would give parents time to plan.

“Hopefully, the adults in Gallatin County will step up,” he said, and follow health protocols, “so we can get these numbers down and get students back five days a week.”

The cohort model would have allowed most students to attend class in person five days a week and sought to prevent spread of the coronavirus by limiting contact, keeping students in groups of 50 or fewer, rather than letting them interact with a school’s entire student body at lunches, recesses and in hallways.

Now with the blended model, students will be school just two days a week and in smaller groups of 10 to 15 students in a classroom at a time, sitting at a distance from each other.

School administrators and Bozeman School Board trustees will keep working with the Gallatin City-County Health Department to watch seven-day and 14-day trends, he said.

If numbers of virus cases improve, Bozeman schools could switch to the cohort model. And if virus numbers get worse, schools could send all kids home for 100% remote or online instruction.

The School Board trustees will hold an internet Zoom meeting at 9 a.m. Thursday to discuss this and other issues, and the public is invited to join in. Questions can be sent to administrators by email.

Connors also sent parents a written plan outlining the blended model in greater detail.

“I hope this gives you enough information to generate some calm,” he said. “I understand it’s also going to cause some angst.

“Together, as we do in Bozeman, we will get through this and make the best of this opportunity.”

Montana’s large AA school districts are taking different approaches, Connors said, with Billings and Kalispell using the cohort model and Missoula and Butte using the blended model.

Last March, when the virus hit Montana and the governor ordered schools and many businesses closed, Bozeman schools used a Google software program for teaching kids at home. It had problems, so now the district plans to use a different, more robust platform for online lessons. It will mean kids can check in with teachers and be more accountable for their time.

The district had earlier told parents that Aug. 12 would be the deadline to sign up if they want 100% online instruction for their children. Now that deadline is extended to Aug. 19, Connors said. And parents won’t be locked in for the entire year but can change if the school district switches to a different model.

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