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While some of the largest school districts in the state have faced challenges in their plans to reopen to five days of in-person learning, smaller districts have used their size to craft a flexible learning plan for their students.

With fewer students, these districts have balanced their ability to socially distance with in-person learning, technology needs and the inevitable quarantines.

Monforton School has about 600 students in kindergarten to eighth grade, and the majority of its students have been in five days a week of in-person learning since the start of the school year.

Darren Strauch, superintendent of Monforton, said about 85% of the student population opted to be in-person while the remaining 15% decided to be remote-only. To accommodate those students, he said, all but two grade levels have teachers instructing both in-person and remote. Those two grade levels had enough students opt to be remote for the school to assign a remote-only teacher.

“For some folks it works really well and for others it’s a struggle,” he said of remote learning, adding the school was continuing to innovate and respond to what those struggles are.

LaMotte School, a K-8 school east of Bozeman, also began the year with full time in-person learning. Principal LeeAnn Burke said the school felt it could do that safely with 70 students in the building and using the cohort model.

The school averages from 9 to 17 kids in its multi-grade classes. All of the grades are combined with another grade level in a classroom, except for sixth grade.

For example, kindergarteners and first graders are in one class, while second and third graders are in another class.

Anderson School has also been fully in person since August, with 212 students enrolled. Superintendent Kristi Jacobs said a few students decided to opt out of in-person learning for the year.

Jacobs said there are about 18 students in the kindergarten to third grade distance learning program and 13 students in fifth to eighth grade, with none in the fourth grade choosing distance learning.

Anderson also began offering rapid COVID-19 tests to symptomatic staff and students from about 2,000 test kits it received from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.

Through the increased test surveillance, the school noted a rise in its positivity rate and recently transitioned to fully remote learning on Jan. 19 through Feb. 1.

While the school has transitioned to remote, Jacobs said the teachers have made a smooth transition with each student having their own device for learning.

Anderson isn’t the only school that has had to cope with quarantines. Remaining in person for five days a week has meant many schools have had to be flexible when staff or students need to quarantine.

Burke said each of the five classes at LaMotte has had to quarantine once, with one of them quarantining twice. The school has followed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation of 10-day quarantines.

She said if a class has a positive case, then the school decides to quarantine the whole class due to the social distancing constraints.

Burke said LaMotte decided not to offer a remote only option due to its smaller size and all students returned but two who opted to home school.

At Monforton, a full class has had to quarantine due to a possible exposure around 10 times, Strauch said. If a Monforton staff member has to quarantine, they are sometimes able to work from home with the support of a substitute teacher in the classroom.

“In many cases, it’s worked really well,” Strauch said.

For some of the schools, the federal coronavirus relief funds they received helped to fill in missing technology needs or expand staffing.

LaMotte School received $10,000 in the spring, about $12,000 in the second round of funding and has yet to receive anything from the third round of coronavirus relief funding passed in December.

“It’s certainly been helpful and we certainly have need for more,” Burke said.

She said LaMotte purchased additional Chrome books to ensure each student had a device and decided to expand the hours for some of its staff members, like custodians and counselors.

“We increased the time of our counselors because we knew kids coming in were going to have some social emotional needs and felt like we needed to have someone more available to them,” Burke said.

Anderson School also used some of its COVID-19 relief funding to update technology and meet the device needs of its students, Jacobs said.

Strauch, at Monforton, said the school decided to forego pricy ventilation updates to the building and instead used some of their federal relief money to hire additional paraprofessionals. He said there are three serious candidates for an open position.

Overall, Strauch said schools, no matter their size, are trying to continue to make opportunities to celebrate kids and connect during this time. He said that’s especially true as the possibility of vaccinations for teachers draws closer.

“Everyone has some sense of hope,” he said.

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.