The Belgrade School Board on Monday changed its decision about how to offer instruction this fall, opting to send students back to classes full time while reserving a remote learning option for families who do not wish to send their children to school.

The board chose to make the decision prior to its regularly scheduled meeting next week, in part because parents are being asked to make a choice regarding online learning for their children by Friday this week. The district is currently surveying parents about their preferred option. As of last Friday, about 60 percent had indicated they favor sending their students back to in-person classes, said Curriculum Director Mark Halgren.

On July 27, the board voted to open the 2020-21 school year on Aug. 31 under a “blended” instruction model, meaning different groups of students would attend in-person classes on alternate days, then access online instruction on their at-home days. The idea was meant to reduce exposure to the COVID-19 virus by having fewer numbers of students in school buildings at any given time.

But shortly after that decision was made, administrators realized the blended model would impose hardship on some families with young children who require child care, so the Aug. 3 meeting was scheduled for consideration of two alternative recommendations: a Remote Option, with instruction offered online; and the Full-Time (with remote) option that the board ultimately voted to accept.

Saunders told trustees the district would be “a major player in the child care game” if it proceeded with the blended model. If only one-quarter of first- through seventh-graders had three “off” days per week, it would mean approximately 600 students would require child care in the community.

He added that by offering school full-time while reserving the remote-learning option for families not comfortable sending their kids to school, more students will have the opportunity to succeed. Last spring, he said, some students who normally achieved academic success did not do as well in the remote-learning environment.

The Gallatin City-County Health Department recently passed a face covering rule that specifies only middle school and high school students be required to wear masks at school. In spite of that, Saunders said he will recommend that students of all ages be required to wear masks in Belgrade schools.

Saunders said the district will provide disposable masks for students, but suggested parents purchase masks their children will be more likely to wear without complaint, such as those sporting team logos or appealing motifs.

Children may opt out of wearing masks for valid medical reasons, but Saunders suggested those students probably should opt for the remote learning option.

Saunders said studies indicate the COVID-19 virus is less dangerous than the seasonal flu for children. Last month, Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said it is “critically important” for public schools to open in the fall. He said school closures have resulted in “negative health consequences on our youth.”

Saunders added that though far fewer school-age children are afflicted with the virus than those in other age groups, it will be impossible to keep the virus out of the schools.

“There will be COVID cases in schools. No matter what we do, there will be COVID cases,” he said.

As to how the district will handle those inevitable situations, Saunders said the district will abide by recommendations of the Gallatin City-County Health Department expected to be received this week.

Trustee Steve Garvert, who attended Monday’s meeting via Zoom because he is in quarantine following his daughter’s positive test for COVID-19, said, “It’s going to be very important for people to police themselves.” Garvert said he was struck by how quickly the virus spread among his daughter’s friends.

Related questions arose about whether the district attendance policy will be amended to accommodate long quarantine periods for individuals, and whether students who are subject to quarantine will be able to switch to remote learning while they are banned from school.

Trustees were reminded it isn’t only young people whose health needs to be considered. Belgrade High School teacher Randy Radke addressed the board on behalf of the Belgrade Education Association, the teachers’ union, asking trustees to “please keep the health of our teachers in mind.”

“We do have teachers that are very scared about coming back (for health reasons),” he said, adding that he knows of seven teachers at the high school who are talking about not coming back.

Board Chair Mary Ellen Fitzgerald said she still wants a lot of answers to the numerous “what happens if …” questions out there, but she was among the six board members who voted in favor of the full-time, in-person model. Trustee Ted Mongeon cast the lone 'no' vote and said there are "too many moving parts" to make a decision at this time.