Bozeman High School lets out

Students head to their buses at the end of the day at Bozeman High in this March 2020 Chronicle file photo.

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Bozeman school leaders are grappling with how to start the year in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, and leaning toward dramatically cutting the number of students who can ride school buses.

Bozeman School Board trustees reached no decisions Monday night but talked about whether to stop offering bus rides to hundreds of students who live within three miles of their schools.

Mike Waterman, business services director, said now school buses usually hold two kids per seat.

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for limiting spread of the dangerous virus call for having just one student on each seat — that’s if the kids all wear masks.

And if kids don’t wear masks, CDC recommends having just one student for every four seats.

Trustees expressed interest in requiring masks, though they admitted it would be tricky for drivers to enforce. That would mean each bus could carry only half as many kids as usual.

One solution would be having kids travel to school on split schedules. Another would be to ignore the CDC recommendations.

But the solution that attracted the greatest interest would require more students who live closer than three miles of school to walk, ride bikes or get rides with parents.

State law requires offering bus transportation to students who live three miles away or farther. For years Bozeman schools have offered bus rides to many students who live closer than three miles.

First Student, the school bus company with the contract to transport Bozeman students, is already 11 drivers short of the number it needs to offer normal service this fall, Waterman said. There’s “no way,” he said, that Bozeman could bring in more buses or more drivers. So far fewer kids could ride the buses.

It’s safer when more students ride the buses, it’s better for the environment and builds goodwill for the school district, Waterman said. But having more kids on buses may simply be unrealistic this year, he said.

Bob Connors, school superintendent, said he still plans to decide on Aug. 7, closer to the Aug. 31 start of school, whether schools should open as usual.

One option is to teach Bozeman’s 7,000 students remotely by computer, as happened after spring break. Another option is to create a mix of in-person and remote learning, possibly with students broken into “cohort” groups of 50 that would stick together to reduce any virus spread.

Connors said he would encourage parents to have their kids start practicing now to wear face masks, for half an hour at a time, so they can get used to the idea before school starts.

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

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