BILLINGS — While no final decision was reached, Billings School District 2 Superintendent Greg Upham said if COVID-19 case numbers keep falling in the community, he would consider lifting the mask mandate for staff and students mid January after the start of the new semester.
“In looking at the case counts and their decline, I think I'm cautiously optimistic that we discuss the lifting of the mask mandate in mid-January, paying attention to the metrics that we’ve used," Upham told trustees at a Monday night school board meeting.
Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton is a regular at the board meetings, providing context to community COVID-19 data. He attended the Monday meeting and said a decrease in community and Billings school COVID cases was the first piece of good news he's been able to offer in a while.
“The first bit of good news I’ve been able to share with you for a long time. We still have a pretty significant number of cases, but it’s good to see the numbers lower," Felton said.
October was the worst month on record for new COVID cases in Yellowstone County, with 4,522 new cases recorded, Felton said. The 2020 peak for total new cases was seen in November with 4,204. So far, November 2021 has seen 1,432 new cases in Yellowstone County, Felton said.
New cases in Billings schools have seen similar decreases. The district had been recording about 100 new cases among students and staff per week since the second week of the school year. In the past two weeks, the number has dropped, with 83 new cases in the Billings schools on the week of Oct. 31 and 65 new cases recorded last week. Click here to view the district's COVID-19 tracking chart.
"Our peak of a year ago, it looks a lot like what we saw this year. About the same level, that little period of staying up and then working our way down. These last several weeks in particular, we’ve seen pretty significant drops," Felton said.
The 2020 COVID-19 case spike took about four months to flatten out, according to data Felton shared at the meeting. In November 2020, Yellowstone County saw around 100 new COVID-19 cases per day per 100,000 population and flattened out in the spring and mid-summer to around 10 new cases per day per 100,000 population.
If the 2021 peak is to take a similar course, Felton estimated the county would reach the baseline by February of about 10 new cases per day per 100,000 population.
In Billings, the decision of whether to require masks to be worn in school buildings falls to the superintendent.
Upham said there are many variables to the decision, including the possibility of a spike in cases with holiday gatherings, but he'll continue to rely on the county health department, its staff and data, along with other community medical professionals to make the decision.
Upham said a big factor in the mask decision is the fact that now every school-age kid can get a COVID-19 vaccine, minus preschool students. He said about 40% of Yellowstone County kids age 12 to 17 have been vaccinated and he doesn't expect the number to increase much.
“I don’t anticipate the 5-to-11-year-olds getting there. Which brings us back to, I think, an important question and answer that needs to be pondered. I think by mid-January, the majority of families that are going to choose to vaccinate their five to eleven-year-olds, it’s going to be done. Then we are where we are as a society. As I said earlier, it’s not throwing your hands up in the air. But we can not remain masked forever and all students, other than our pre-school students would have had an opportunity to be vaccinated," Upham said.
If the Billings schools end up mask-less in the second semester, Upham said there would be ample notice sent out to parents, so they could make the decision whether to keep their kids enrolled in person or have them start the new semester in virtual learning.
The district currently has 115 students enrolled in virtual learning, with the ability to easily add 100 more, Upham said. The number was less than 30 before Upham changed course, requiring masks to be worn by students days before the school year started.
In 2020, the district had about 2,500 enrolled in virtual learning.
The masks were an obvious point of contention in the community at the start of the school year. The face coverings drew many to the public comment podium at board meetings. The mask requirement sparked a protest in Billings in opposition to the mandate and a few days later a car parade in support of the mandate was organized.