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COVID-19 cases in Bozeman School District continue to rise with 84 new infections reported among students and staff on Monday and 74 by 4 p.m. on Tuesday, placing the district within a couple dozen cases of the weekly high of 181 infections it recorded last week.

The surge in cases has led to a renewed focus on staffing capacity and the district’s ability to keep schools open for students.

Roughly 40 district staff members were out due to COVID-19 related reasons on both Monday and Tuesday, according to Pat Strauss, director of human services with the district.

On Tuesday, there were 10 teaching positions across the district that were not covered by substitute teachers but had been covered by other teachers or paraprofessionals in the school, Strauss said in an email.

Staffing is something the district is paying close attention to day-by-day, Chad Berg, the district’s director of special education and student health, said in an interview Tuesday.

The majority of new cases have been among students and not staff, Berg said.

“We’re working hard to make sure we’re covering those positions so we’re able to keep the doors open,” he said.

During Monday evening’s board meeting, interim Superintendent Casey Bertram acknowledged the impacts of the omicron surge.

“We are certainly experiencing the omicron surge within our community, within our school district and across the state of Montana,” Bertram said. “… It’s quite a surge.”

Bertram outlined how the COVID-19 task force, which met on Jan. 7, had agreed that keeping the buildings open and adult capacity was the “why” behind the mask requirement and the policy should be used to “manage the current surge in omicron transmission.”

“By nature of the omicron surge, we have many adults and many students that are in mandatory isolation periods. When you play that out on the adult side, adult capacity becomes a challenge for us so we returned to masking at the high school specifically tied to adult capacity and keeping our buildings open,” Bertram said.

Staff members have stepped up across the district, Bertram said, including “using their prep period and their lunch periods to cover open spots all in an effort to keep our buildings open. We are focused on avoiding remote learning.”

However, if a building, grade band or the district got to a point where they were unable to keep the doors open, the district could fall back on remote learning, Bertram said.

On Monday, Great Falls Public Schools moved to remote learning for a week following a surge in COVID-19 cases. The school reported 125 staff absent and 185 students and staff had tested positive.

Berg said there was not a clear cut line that would tip the the decision to move a building or grade band to remote learning. Generally, at a 20% staff absence rate, the district has seen it can become a struggle to cover all the positions and keep the school open, Berg said.

“It’s a pretty dynamic analysis. I know we look at it each day and we ask principals to keep a pulse on it and we communicate with our human resource office,” Berg said.

The district, which has access to tests through a grant from the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, continues to offer optional, voluntary testing for symptomatic and close contacts. Parent permission is required for students.

Berg said the district has had pretty consistent access to tests but there was some concern that the demand for tests nationwide could impact supplies.

“The state has communicated with us that orders that were placed later in the day yesterday would be on hold until their next shipment came in,” Berg said. “… It’s something we’re monitoring on if we’re going to be on a more significant delay.”

District administrators reminded families that if children are sick, they should stay home. If they have questions about contact tracing protocols or isolation and quarantine guidelines they could contact the health department

“We would continue to ask families for grace and patience as we work hard to keep our schools functioning,” Berg said.

In addition to its own internal data, the district also monitors the community data on transmission and local hospitalization levels too.

It was also important, Berg said, to factor in the importance of having students in school, including ensuring they have access to caring adults, food and counseling services.

“Those are all really important pieces for us that are hard to measure but we pay close attention to,” Berg said. “We want to make sure we have kids coming to school and able to access those supports and we want to make sure we have healthy adults in our schools able to deliver those supports.”

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

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