BILLINGS — Billings School District 2 Superintendent Greg Upham told trustees he's still waiting on more Yellowstone County school-aged COVID-19 case data to make final decisions about the mask policy in Billings schools for the 2021-22 year.
"We are confronted with a virus that is running rampant and we know we have to stay in school. So I just plead with everyone in our community to understand each other and understand each other as we decipher the best interest for our children and for our community," Upham said at the Monday night school board meeting.
Billings students and teachers head back to the in person classroom next week on Monday, Aug. 23. No stand-alone remote learning platform will be offered this year to students and staff.
Upham said he's waiting on the specific number of school-aged new COVID-19 cases per week, which will be released by the state on Tuesday.
Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton said as the overall number of cases in the county goes up, new cases in the age range of zero to 19 increases proportionally.
"As the absolute number increases, even if the proportion stays relatively similar there are more cases among that younger group," Felton said.
Felton said the week ending Aug. 7 saw 40 total COVID cases in kids age zero to 19. That's up from 19 total in school-age kids cases two weeks previous in the week ending Jul. 24.
“As far as working through masking, not masking. There are still the data points of the weekly reports that’s coming tomorrow for all of us to consider. As far as a decision is concerned with that I want to recommend that and share that as our 1905 policy says that superintendent has the decision in consultation with the trustees. And as I did with you today, I talked with each one of you, I think, or I left a voicemail just about where we are and I will continue to do that," Upham said.
Last month, trustees amended the district's mask policy to the allow the superintendent discretion on whether masks are required to be worn by students and staff.
Before the bulk of the meeting discussion, trustees heard about an hour of public comment from community members. The vast majority advocated for masks to be optional for students in the upcoming year.
"Each parent should be making their own decisions in regard to their children and that should be something that is a choice for us and accountability in our own homes as well as to make our own health choices," said Susan Smith, a Billings grandmother with grandchildren in the district.
Masks will still be required on school buses, because they fall under federal transportation guidelines.
Upham estimated about 79 percent of the Billings Schools 16,641 enrolled students will be unvaccinated heading into the new school year, based on the age eligibility and the county's overall vaccination rate of 48 percent of the eligible population. He said enrollment numbers change slightly by the day and his estimates were based off the last count taken Aug. 13.
Upham also said about 2,272 students between the ages of 12 and 17 could come into the new year vaccinated and 8,414 students in kindergarten through sixth grade are ineligible to be vaccinated due to their age.
There is no way to know how many staff members are vaccinated with new rules called out in House Bill 702, Upham said. The bill passed this year by the Montana Legislature prohibits discrimination based on vaccination status in Montana, according to the state Department of Labor and Industry website.
For COVID-19 mitigation procedures, Upham said staff will keep up with increased sanitation, physically distance and cohort to the best of their ability, and delay major school gatherings for the first six weeks of classes. The school's food service providor, Sodexo, will individually wrap school meals until September.
School administrators will not be responsible for the time consuming task of contact tracing and deciding who to quarantine this year. The task will instead fall to the county health department.
Upham said staff are still working out the details, but the plan is to send an email home to the parents of a student who may have come in contact with a COVID-19 positive person. The email will inform the parent about the symptoms of the virus, encourage them to keep their student home if they are sick and provide resources for testing and care, Upham said.
Last year for contact tracing, the principal was made aware of the case and did contact tracing. Anyone considered a close contact was quarantined for initially for 14 days, then the quarantine period was reduced to 10 days per CDC guidance. Then it was reduced to eight days if the person had a negative antigen test towards the last third of the school year, Upham said.
"We need to implement preventative measures or actions that have durability and longevity. Contact tracing is not something that has longevity. It took its tole on our people last year. It was very difficult. It had fractured relationships. It was challenging. It did what it needed to do and it kept us in school and I applaud that, but it's not something that we can use in the long term," Upham said.
For COVID-19 testing, Upham said the district will now pay for student, staff or immediate household member COVID-19 antigen tests utilizing federal COVID relief money after he finalized the decision earlier in the week. The tests will be done through St. John's United, Upham said.
Upham added he's working with RiverStone Health staff to establish a "tier two" testing platform to roll into schools and test students and staff if need be.
Craig Van Nice, chief financial officer for the district, gave a quick preview of a budget discussion meeting scheduled for Aug. 24 at 2:30 p.m.
Van Nice said staff are about ready to close up the books on the 2020-21 school year with an elementary school budget that will break even and a high school budget that will have a surplus of about $800,000.
At the meeting next week, staff will have a total cost that the district spent on the COVID-19 pandemic in items like additional remote learning staff and technology and extra cleaning staff and materials. Van Nice said he expects the pandemic to have cost the district about $4 million in the 2020-21 school year.
At the start of 2020, Van Nice said the district was to receive about $12 million in COVID relief money, with some allocated by the state and some allocated by the federal government.
View the complete meeting at the link below.