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When the 1918 influenza pandemic rolled through the treasure state, the Malmborg Schoolhouse was 13 years old. It would be 115 years old when the next pandemic roiled the world and upended public education.

Built in 1905 and located along Jackson Creek Road, the one-room schoolhouse has 12 students enrolled in kindergarten to sixth grade as it navigates yet another pandemic.

Schools like Malmborg and Cottonwood Elementary, which has 18 students in K-5, have balanced their limited space and resources with the benefit of having smaller class sizes and the creativity that comes with being a one- or two-room schoolhouse.

Malmborg began the school year in a blended model, with kindergarten to second grades coming to school in the morning and third to sixth grades in the afternoon. After Christmas, the students returned to full in-person learning.

“It’s kind of an easy transition,” said Roxy Marquardt, lead teacher at the school. “I feel like if we had any more (students) it might have been a little harder to open up.”

Students, teachers and any school visitors are required to wear a mask and a face shield, she said. Marquardt said she and one other teacher split the teaching load evenly.

“It’s been nice to have everyone back together and have the normal schedule,” she said. “There’s been a learning curve for us to get back to a kind of normal.”

Cottonwood Elementary began the school year with students learning in person five days a week.

“We’re really lucky and grateful that we get to be in school,” said Abby Eichenberger, a teacher at Cottonwood. “We’re able to socially distance and manage it.”

Cottonwood has two teachers for its two classrooms, a lower elementary class and an upper elementary class. There is also a paraprofessional that assists the classes.

Smaller sizes haven’t made schools like Malmborg and Cottonwood immune to the seemingly inevitable quarantine and isolation periods that have happened throughout Gallatin County schools. But it has perhaps limited the amount of quarantines and remote learning their students experienced.

Malmborg’s students spent two weeks before Thanksgiving break in distance learning when one of the teachers tested positive for COVID-19. Third to sixth graders spent the morning working on science and social studies via Google Classroom and then reading, writing and math in the afternoon, Marquardt said.

One of Cottonwood’s classes also had a week in November where it transitioned to distance learning because a staff member needed to quarantine.

“That’s the only time we’ve had to switch a class online,” Eichenberger said. “Although certain families have had to quarantine individually. It’s been minimal interruptions which we were surprised and grateful for.”

The students met via Google Classroom in the morning, worked separately for a time, met synchronized in midday again and had time to work on creative projects in the afternoon, she said.

For both schools, all students had a device provided by the school for learning remotely.

Eichenberger said one of the reasons the class went remote was due to the struggle smaller, rural schools face finding substitute teachers.

“It’s a challenge finding substitutes out here just because all the subs usually sub at other schools too and its competitive with Bozeman Public Schools,” she said.

Malmborg also decided not to take any out of district students, despite having a few people inquire when they learned the school would be doing in-person learning. Marquardt said it would be hard to fit more than the 12 kids the school already had while maintaining social distancing.

“With the 12 desks in the main room, we can have them all fairly close to 6 feet apart,” she said. “It’s also been a little bit busier for the other teacher and I just to make sure everyone is staying six feet apart and making sure they have masks and face shields on.”

Both Marquardt and Eichenberger said the school day looks fairly similar to previous years for their small schools, despite the facemasks and social distancing

Whereas other schools have had to change their lunch periods, Marquardt, who has taught at Malmborg for five years, said lunch for her students is the same – students pack a lunch, there are a few microwaves available and everyone eats at their desk like they normally do.

“For the most part, we’re back to normal,” Eichenberger said. “There’s just so much more you can do in person, working on projects together and building things that last multiple days. We love it.”

Both teachers said they were glad their students were able to have the social and emotional interaction that comes from in-person learning.

“The opportunity to learn together and be together even in these challenging times has been such a gift,” Eichenberger said. “Their curiosity is definitely, very much alive.”

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Liz Weber can be reached at or 582-2633.

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