Billings Public Schools reverses decision about masks

By: - January 14, 2022 1:21 pm

Young girls wearing protective masks running on sidewalk

Less than a week away from implementing new “masking optional” policies, Montana’s largest K-12 public school system announced that it was reversing its decision and continuing the masking requirements in schools because of a surge of COVID-19 cases attributed to the omicron variant.

The letter, sent to parents and the community by School District 2 Superintendent Greg Upham on Thursday, said a number of factors led to the decision, and the ultimate goal of the district, which has more than 16,000 students, was to keep in-person learning and activities. Upham pointed out a number of districts have had to go back to remote learning for students as the pandemic has surged.

“It was with great anticipation that we were poised to welcome optional masking, but the trajectory of current cases requires us to remain vigilant as we work through this wave,” Upham told parents.

Upham repeated the metrics the district reviews as it determines its health policies, including the total number of active cases, the positive cases and the current capacity of healthcare centers in the area. He said that those indicators all point to keeping masking and other techniques, including social distancing and frequent hand washing in place, in order to try to keep schools open.

“We have to refocus our efforts in optimizing our ability to continue providing critical in-person instruction and extracurricular activities,” the letter said.

However, also included in the letter was an outline of what would happen if the school district would have to shutter in-person class instruction and switch back to remote learning, something that happened during the initial outbreak of COVID in 2020.

Upham said that by reversing the masking decision, the district is doing everything to avoid “a remote learning environment.” However, the note warned parents that if the switch was made, principals from each school would work with parents to check out technology and work with other programs to start remote learning again.

The Billings Gazette reported on Friday that four Yellowstone County residents died, and more than 1,500 residents have tested positive this week.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.