Bozeman High School art

Bozeman High School students rush out the front doors of the high school on Tuesday.

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COVID-19 is spreading through Bozeman School District faster than the rest of the community, especially in the high schools, and Bozeman School District administrators are urging everyone to remain vigilant and maintain safety measures to ensure in-person learning can continue.

School administrators at Monday evening’s school board meeting expressed concern over a four-week trend in Bozeman and Gallatin high schools showing high transmission levels and highlighted multiple instances of classroom transmission.

“While the news of vaccine clinics give us a lot of celebration and hope, we have some alarming trends,” said interim co-superintendent Casey Bertram on Monday.

Since the week of Feb. 12, the high schools have had a higher rate of COVID-19 transmission than the rest of the county, according to the district’s high school tracking dashboard. As of March 4, the number of new cases per 100,000 over the last two weeks was 391 cases for Gallatin County, one of the lowest rates since the spike in the fall. For that same date range, the high school rate of new cases per 100,000 was 1,045 — more than two-and-a-half times higher than the transmission rate in the county, according to the district’s data.

This comes after the high schools transitioned to four days of in-person learning on Jan. 27. The middle schools followed with full in-person learning on Feb. 1. The elementary schools have been fully in-person since last fall.

“What we had been seeing throughout the majority of our school year was school transmission rates had been lower than the community transmission rates,” said Chad Berg, director of special education, who is leading the district’s COVID-19 data collection.

The board did not make a decision related to recent coronavirus infection numbers — Bertram said the discussion was a opportunity to outline what the administration was seeing in the schools and possible options moving forward.

Bertram recommended the district administration continue to monitor the rates and see what happens during spring break, from March 15-19. Depending on what happens with COVID-19 transmission rates over the next few weeks, the board could schedule another update or an action item for the next board meeting on March 29.

“The other part of our recommendation is an encouragement to stay vigilant,” Bertram said. “We want this to be over. We want to talk about this in the past tense and we’re not there yet.”

The district also began seeing instances of classroom transmission across the elementary, middle and high school levels late last week, raising additional concerns, Berg said.

“Before we were seeing those in-class transmissions, we were really focused on several incidences where we had social situations outside of school,” he said, adding people might not have been using proper mitigation practices.

While the elementary schools have consistently been below the community COVID-19 transmission rate, in the last week Emily Dickinson Elementary School has reported an increase in student and staff quarantines. As of Monday, 104 students were in quarantine and 10 staff were in quarantine, representing roughly 22% and 14% of the population, respectively.

One parent of a third grader at Emily Dickinson expressed concern during public comment at Monday’s school board meeting over the lack of communication about what is happening in the school. She said she had “no clue what was going on” and was nervous to send her child to school the next day.

Bertram said the district was paying close attention to COVID-19 transmission and staff capacity at Emily Dickinson. The efforts to increase the number of available substitute teachers after shortages occurred earlier in the school year have been successful, he said.

Administrators will continue to monitor staffing levels, especially Thursday and Friday, as sub availability was low for those two days.

The district administrators and board trustees stressed the importance of continuing to take COVID-19 precautions seriously, inside and outside the schools.

“It’s really disappointing to see this rise in the schools,” said Trustee Wendy Tage. “…We need the community to not let up because now it’s affecting what’s happening in the schools.”

District officials said the schools were continuing to use safety and cleaning precautions and asked family and students to maintain social distancing and mask-wearing.

“We’re in this for the long haul,” Bertram said. “… We have in-person instruction most days of the week and we want to be able to stay there.”

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

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