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The Bozeman middle and high schools are scheduled to expand their in-person learning days amid the coronavirus pandemic and as Montana State University students return to town.

The middle schools will join the elementary schools in five days of in-person instruction on Feb. 2, while the high schools will move to four days of in-person learning on Jan. 27.

The school board voted Monday after a lengthy discussion and one failed motion to move the district’s middle and high schools to more days of in-person instruction.

“Making recommendations on instruction models is not one we take lightly,” said Co-Superintendent Casey Bertram.

The motion passed by the board says the transition for high schools will be revisited at the Jan. 25 board meeting, allowing trustees to look at two weeks of additional COVID-19 data. The middle school transition could also be revisited during that meeting if the metrics warrant a more or less restrictive learning model.

During the virtual meeting, co-superintendents Bertram and Marilyn King recommended the high schools remain in the blended model until trends in the COVID-19 matrix sparked a discussion for a more or less restrictive model.

In a presentation to the board, Bertram said one of the reasons for recommending the high school remain at two days of in-person learning was because transmission rates at the high schools were consistently elevated above transmission rates for elementary and middle schools.

There are also clusters of transmission at the high schools related to activities and the winter school activities were already underway, Bertram said. Moving into a less restrictive model of learning also did not allow social distancing. He acknowledged that the start of the second semester, Jan. 27, would be an ideal transition date but it was not the only one.

“We would like to see a couple more weeks of data before making a recommendation,” Bertram said, adding it would be important to see how the return of Montana State University students affects the community and internal school data.

Bertram said if the high school’s trend remained steady, it was likely the administrators would make a recommendation at the Jan. 25 board meeting to transition to a less restrictive learning model.

But a motion to adopt the administration’s recommendation failed. Trustees Andy Willett, Greg Neil, Kevin Black, Gary Lusin and Wendy Tage voted against it.

The trustees opposed had concerns that waiting to decide on a transition to four days of in-person learning until the next board meeting would delay the transition until two weeks after that meeting. They argued voting to prepare for a Jan. 27 transition, the start of the high schools’ next semester, would still allow the board to review its decision in light of more data at the Jan. 25 meeting.

“In my opinion, these essential to consider items and our core principal (to educate kids) carry more weight than COVID,” said Neil. “…We are overdue. This has gone on long enough. It is time.”

The motion for the high schools to prepare for a transition to four days of learning on Jan. 27, pending any significant changes to the COVID-19 metrics before Jan. 25, passed 5-3. Trustees Tanya Reinhardt, Douglas Fischer and Chairperson Sandy Wilson were opposed.

The high school transition will be four days of in-person and one day of remote learning, or a 4-plus-1 model. Unlike middle and elementary schools, high school teachers not only teach in-person students but also the high school’s online-only students too. The one day of remote learning, likely to remain Wednesday, allows planning time for the high school teachers.

Throughout the meeting, which had 230 viewers, a mix of students, teachers and parents provided public comment both for and against the transition to four days of in-person learning for the high schools.

After the first motion failed, many public commenters expressed frustration over disregarding the co-superintendents’ recommendations using the decision-making tool developed by a district task force last month.

One parent said the consensus process, which was used to create the COVID-19 metrics, “seemed like its been thrown out the window in the last hour.” Another said it was “presumptuous” of the board members to “disregard the experts.”

The board members who voted against the recommendation by the district administration said they supported the work of the task force and the COVID-19 metrics. Trustee Wendy Tage said she was not disregarding the information in front of her. Instead, they had voted to “fast-track getting ready to make that move on the 27th,” she said.

Those in support for the transition to the 4-plus-1 model said the blended model was not working for many students and was creating mental health challenges.

A senior from Bozeman High School said she didn’t learn very well outside of the classroom and other students were struggling, too. She said she was concerned she and her fellow students would not be ready for college next year if the blended model stayed in place.

More in-person learning is also likely to increase the number of quarantines since social distancing is harder in middle and high schools, according to district administrators. Throughout the meeting, parents and teachers commented on the struggles of quarantines and the disruption it causes to students and classroom.

Lily Smith, a junior at Bozeman High School, spoke in favor of remaining in the blended model. She said returning to full capacity would present more challenges for students and teachers and increase the number of quarantines due to the lack of social distancing.

Administrators also said students would not have access to as much teacher-supported remote learning during quarantines because teachers would be teaching full classes of in-person students.

The motion based on the co-superintendents’ recommendation to keep elementary schools in five days and move the middle schools to full in-person learning passed unanimously.

The board also discussed creating an emergency district policy on face coverings. The policy outlines guidance on disciplinary action related to failure or refusal to wear a mask or harassment related to protective face coverings.

Developed in partnership with the Montana School Boards Association, the policy would apply “during the COVID-19 state of emergency declared by the Board of Trustees or other local, state or federal agency, official or legislative body.”

The decision to create a district-wide policy requiring masks was spurred by Gov. Greg Gianforte’s likely decision to repeal the statewide mandate.

The board will review the policy during its Jan. 25 meeting for final consideration and approval.

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

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