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Bozeman superintendent discusses managing the pandemic in schools post-omicron

Bozeman Public Schools Superintendent Casey Bertram
Bozeman Public Schools
Bozeman Public Schools Superintendent Casey Bertram

As COVID-19 cases start to decline following the omicron surge, some school leaders are changing the way the pandemic is managed. Bozeman Public Schools is loosening restrictions and moving to routine disease management.

Yellowstone Public Radio’s Olivia Weitz spoke with Superintendent Casey Bertram about the reasoning behind the shift and what changes look like in the district.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Olivia Weitz: You're proposing shifting from a pandemic COVID-related management of the pandemic to more of a routine management post-omicron. What does that mean, and what does that look like for the district?

Casey Bertram: Moving from sort of emergency management of COVID-19 to typical disease management means a variety of things. One, moving to optional masking for all students, staff and the public in all of our district buildings and activities. Day-to-day it doesn't change a whole lot. What you will see is our sites are discontinuing sending the daily email correspondence to parents notifying them of the number of positive cases in the school. We are tracking, however. All of that data continues to be tracked on our website. So right from our home page, there's a COVID-19 news button and all of the data collection behind the scenes will continue to happen.

What is the sort of rationale behind making this larger shift in how the pandemic is managed at this stage in the pandemic?

Yeah, we're just in a very different place than we have been at any other point in the pandemic, largely due to the wide availability of vaccines and boosters. Vaccines are available for all of our school-age children. Because of that, we have given that a long time, so our community has had plenty of opportunity to engage in a vaccination pathway or a natural immunity pathway.

We are also seeing with omicron that serious illness and death numbers are down. Our hospital rates are stable. And what we saw with the omicron surge was an exponential increase, followed by an exponential decrease. While omicron has been decreasing exponentially in our district, we're also seeing our adult capacity, our ability to fill open positions with subs, that has gone up over 90 percent, which is a good place for us to be.

Can we just look back up a little bit and talk a little bit about what was unique about the omicron surge for the district? What sort of challenges did that wave present and how did that play out?

Right after winter break it hit us and the rest of the community hard and fast, and so we saw exponential increases above and beyond case counts we had ever seen throughout the pandemic. So, what that meant for us was just the number of adults available to serve our children was seriously impacted. We had never been closer to moving to remote learning based upon transmission rates and adult capacity than at any other time in the pandemic.

Because of just the sheer number we were seeing, our adult capacity fill rates at that time were pretty abysmal. We were around 70 percent, so 30 percent of our open positions not being filled. That put an incredible strain on all of our school sites. They rallied to keep the doors open and did a variety of creative supervision and coverage things. Certainly not ideal for the instructional model, but it was an all hands on deck for a few weeks there after the break to keep the doors open.

It seems like there are some risks moving to this more routine disease management. There's going to be more variants coming up. What sort of situation could shift the district back to the mask mandate and back to some of these more pandemic-related COVID-19 management strategies?

I think it's really tied to adult capacity. And so what we've learned throughout the pandemic is the vast majority of our students prefer an in-person school experience versus an online school experience. We are committed to providing that in-person experience. When that in-person experience is in jeopardy for whatever reason, that's when we would look at added mitigation strategies.

"When that in-person experience is in jeopardy for whatever reason, that's when we would look at added mitigation strategies."

It seems like this year has been really hard on student mental health. I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about that and whether or not you've seen an increased demand for those kind of services from students.

We [had] student mental health concerns in the community and in our school district prior to COVID, and we continue to have them during COVID. I think what we've learned is that COVID-19 is a sort of a collective, not sort of, it is a collective trauma experience that our community and our state and our nation is working through. It's added considerable amount of stress in the business world, in our families' homes and their jobs, and certainly within our school district. So that added level of heightened stress for a long period of time takes its toll on families, takes its toll on our teachers and administrators and certainly takes its toll on students.

I can tell you that just in networking and learning from the therapeutic community that they're busy. And so therapists have waiting lists in town for adults as well as for children. And the mental health issues that were there prior to COVID-19 have been compounded by COVID-19.

You were the interim superintendent this school year and you were recently made into the long-term superintendent for Bozeman Public Schools. What are you looking forward to as superintendent? How are you looking to the future and what are you looking forward to in closing out the school year?

I'm excited for the stability the district has moving forward. I'm excited that we are, as I mentioned, COVID's not done, but we are in a good place with adult capacity and COVID-19 numbers, and moving to typical disease management is a big relief to our staff and our community. There are still some concerns around COVID and we will continue to manage those. But I can tell you our focus is shifting back to teaching and learning.

I mentioned to colleagues yesterday that yesterday in particular was the best day I had in months. We had middle school teachers in our building who had subs available to them, so they could get out of the building, and they were working on some long-term planning around professional learning communities. Our K-5 principals in a meeting in the middle of the day were digging into early reading data and how their students are doing on reading skills. We had a student inclusion resiliency initiative (SIRI) committee diving into graduation rates and setting goals for the district, so it felt like normal.

Olivia Weitz covers Bozeman and surrounding communities in Southwest Montana for Yellowstone Public Radio. She has reported for Northwest News Network and Boise State Public Radio and previously worked at a daily print newspaper. She is a graduate of the University of Puget Sound and the Transom Story Workshop.