Chief Joseph Signs

Encouraging signs are taped to the inside of the windows at Chief Joseph Middle School Monday, April 27, 2020, in Bozeman.

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Nearly 4,000 parents have answered a survey on how Bozeman schools should reopen and so far 85% want their kids back in school, despite the ongoing coronavirus crisis.

Only 15% have said they aren’t comfortable with kids attending school in person and would choose remote or online learning only.

That data is “one piece of the puzzle,” Bozeman Schools Superintendent Bob Connors said Tuesday. “It’s a big puzzle.”

Other considerations include the fact that many school bus drivers and paraprofessional classroom aides are older and more vulnerable to the virus, Connors said. The school district’s goal is to provide a safe environment for everyone in the 7,111-student district.

Casey Bertram, deputy superintendent for curriculum, shared preliminary results from the parent survey Monday night with Bozeman School Board trustees.

Parents have until the end of this week to fill out the surveys. School officials are planning a similar survey for teachers and school staffs.

“We know we’re going to provide a remote option to parents,” Bertram said. The question is matching the number of families that want remote learning with the teachers who want to teach remotely.

Pat Strauss, human resources director, said so far the list of teachers who want to work remotely isn’t long. Some don’t want to teach face-to-face because they have underlying health problems themselves or they fear bringing the virus home to vulnerable family members.

“We will possibly need to recruit more current teaches to be remote teachers,” Strauss said, calling that “a good thing.”

The staff has a lot of questions, he added, about reopening plans and school working conditions.

“The devil is in the details,” Strauss said. “It feels like we’ve been dancing with the devil since March. The dance is getting even tougher as we get close to August.”

The Bozeman School District is still considering four options for opening this fall. Connors will announce his recommended plan on Aug. 7 and ask the school board to approve it Aug. 10.

One option would be to return to regular face-to-face instruction five days a week, but that would likely require a sharp drop in virus cases, which have recently been breaking records in Montana and Gallatin County.

The other extreme would be sending all students and teachers home to do 100% remote learning. That carries the lowest risk of virus exposure but is seen as a weak substitute for face-to-face learning.

There are two middle options. One calls for breaking students into “cohort” groups of 50 within their schools, to contain outbreaks and allow easier contact tracing. Schools would use social distancing and teach face-to-face, five days a week.

The other middle-of-the-road option calls for “blended” learning, which means mixing face-to-face and remote instruction, with students attending in-person classes on alternating days of the week. Or there could be a combination of blended and cohort options.

Asked what would happen if virus cases broke out at school, Bertram said school district and Gallatin City-County Health Department officials are discussing such questions.

The thing that would trigger the school district going back 100% remote learning, as happened last March, he said, would be if the county health staff could no longer do contact tracing.

“When we exhaust the resources of county health to keep us safe in the buildings, that triggers remote learning,” he said.

For some people the question of reopening schools is a political question or economic question, Bertram said, but school officials are focused on “learning and safety.”

Student teachers from Montana State University want to teach in traditional face-to-face classrooms, Strauss said, but if the virus requires it, they’d have to work with their cooperating teachers remotely, too.

“We hope it’s over in October,” he said, “but it could go on two more years.

“That’s a skill young educators are going to have to learn — how to deliver effective remote education.”

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

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