Despite reaching a record high for new coronavirus cases in Gallatin County, Bozeman elementary schools transitioned back to five days of in-person learning on Monday, Nov. 2. Elementary schools are the first of the three school levels to welcome students back to the classroom full time since March. The school board voted to confirm the transition dates to reopen the schools in a Monday, Oct. 12 meeting.

The previous blended model consisted of students attending in-person instruction two days a week and attending virtually for three days. As with the blended model, several procedures will continue to ensure safety for students and faculty, such as mandatory mask wearing, hand-washing stations, recess zones for classes and the prevention of large groups of children from congregating. New transitions will also be made, including allowing classes of more than 20 students and allowing school buses to operate at regular capacity. Prior to these changes, buses were limited to students who lived three miles or further from a given elementary school. Students riding the bus will now be expected to wear a mask, and cameras will be used to contact trace if necessary.

In an email to parents the district wrote, “Families should be prepared for classroom[s], or in some instances, schools, to switch to remote instruction while the District conducts contact tracing/quarantines due to health reasons/face staffing shortages that cause a lack of student supervision.”

Although some families agree with resuming in-person classes, the rise in cases in the county and the inability to socially distance in classrooms has created concerns among parents and staff. More than 120 teachers have signed an open letter to board members and administration urging schools to remain in the blended model of learning. Marty Theide, a fourth grade teacher at Morningstar Elementary in Bozeman, expressed how surprised she was by the amount of interest shown by teachers to help draft the letter.

“I think the responsible thing to do right now is to stay in the blended model and show to our community that we are being responsible as a district to flatten the curve,” Thiede said to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. “Once it was made public that we would be moving to the cohort model, I certainly felt, and colleagues did too, that our voices were at least not being acknowledged, possibly not heard.”

The letter stated, “This collective group of teachers feels disregarded and expendable because of the decisions made by the board.” The teachers also said that, although the blended model was not ideal, students were still learning while teachers were able to interact safely with their students. The letter concluded with the following statement, “The safety, well-being, and possibly lives of district staff (and their loved ones) hangs in the balance of your actions. Please show us that we matter. It is not too late to take the safest and most responsible action - STAY IN THE BLENDED MODEL!”

In response to the pushback from the community, Bozeman Education Association President TamiPhillippi acknowledged the divided feelings about the reopening in an email to teachers. Although it is unclear what the future holds for the district, Phillippi wrote that the best thing teachers can do is to support each other in times of uncertainty.

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