Although masks are no longer mandated in Montana, most schools in the Bitterroot Valley are maintaining the requirement, saying it remains the best way of keeping teachers, students, and other staff safe from the coronavirus.
But the largest districts are monitoring changing conditions as we go into spring. For Hamilton School leaders, COVID-19 precautions are a matter of sticking with what's worked -- including masks.
"It's something we've gotten used to at this point. We see an end in sight. Another reason is that we don't want to remove that mask policy until all of our staff and teachers that want to be vaccinated have been vaccinated,” explained Hamilton School District spokeswoman Justine Stewart. “Because we want to protect those people, and our students and families."
The district says keeping the current policies makes sense because families made their choices on in-class or remote learning based on those precautions. That's not to say the situation won't be reviewed.
"The board might reconvene on the mask matter at the end of the third quarter, going into the fourth quarter. But for right now we are going to keep masks in place.” Stewart said.
Like Hamilton, some Corvallis teachers began vaccinations last week, a sense of the "light at the end of the tunnel", as one teacher told MTN News. But the district is opting to continue with masks, even though that's upset some parents.
"Our numbers have been continually dropping and we've done an amazing job. Really want to hand it to our staff and students who have been patient and understanding and making sure that we're all being safe,” Corvallis School Superintendent Jon Konen said. “So, we are going to continue to keep looking at those mitigation strategies and being to look at, hopefully, a transition."
Stevensville took the unique approach of switching to all-distancing learning after the Christmas Break, which appeared to help slow coronavirus spread.
"The main purpose being, we knew families would be getting together, people would be traveling, and we knew that 14-day window -- with what the CDC was telling us, hopefully, most of the infections would rear their head in that timeframe and we wouldn't be bringing people back onto campus, creating a situation where we had to quarantine students,” Stevensville School Superintendent Bob Moore said.
Like the other districts, Stevensville has seen some heated debate over masks, with trustees deadlocked. But as it stands, masks will stay through year's end. with some remote learning still underway.
"Very honestly, we are really looking forward to normalizing the school environment and bringing our students back,” Moore told MTN News.
It was a year ago this week that Gov. Steve Bullock first ordered school shutdowns at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.