As the state wavers on keeping the current mask mandate, Billings Public Schools intends to keep a strong position on face coverings in class: it's required.
While the state toys with the idea of rescinding the mask mandate, which schools fall under, the board of trustees voted unanimously to update the school’s face coverings policy during Monday's meeting of district trustees.
Gov. Greg Gianforte said in early January that he intends to rescind the state’s mask mandate.
“Are we going to continue with the masks? The policy in front of you is some clarity for our staff and community, teachers and parents about masking,” Superintendent Greg Upham said.
The updated policy requires all staff, volunteers, visitors, and school-aged students to wear a face covering while present in any school building, regardless of vaccination status.
Staff and volunteers, visitors, and students must also wear a mask while at outdoor school activities with 50 or more people, where social distancing is not possible or observed.
Billings Public Schools required masks in the 2020-2021 school year plan, and former Gov. Steve Bullock mandated all public schools require face coverings for the school year in August.
Monday's updated policy provides some additional guidance on disciplinary action related to refusal or failure to wear masks, and harassment related to mask-wearing.
Allegations of harassment of those wearing a mask, or those recognized as exempt, will be investigated in accordance with the district’s policy.
“Masking as a continuation is very important for us to exist in our same format,” Upham said, adding it was a simple fact of safety.
COVID-19 in schools
Upham and other trustees pointed to mask use as one reason why COVID-19 cases haven't skyrocketed in the public schools.
Yellowstone County Public Health Officer John Felton echoed that sentiment Monday evening.
“We’ve done really well. Part of the reason is that we’ve had our staff and kids masked very consistently,” Felton said. “As (masking) becomes optional, I’d encourage all of our districts to do everything to keep a mask mandate in place.”
Felton said the proportion of cases for ages 19 and younger, or most school-aged children, began in August at about 10% of the population of the county.
Currently the percentage of cases among 19 and younger is at about 13% and has wavered anywhere between 12% and 15% since August, he said.
"You haven't seen a drastic spike in (overall) cases regarding younger children once school got in session," he said.
That suggests that having schools open and in-person did not result in a dramatic change in the distribution or prevalence of the disease in the community, he said.
"We're really pleased with how well our districts have done," Felton said.