BILLINGS — Billings union teachers and support staff have signed a new labor agreement that will, among other things, require all members to wear face masks indoors, aligning with district policy.
This agreement, called a memo of understanding, replaces a previous agreement signed in June that made face masks optional and will expire in June 2022 unless otherwise modified.
The agreement was signed by the Billings Education Association, the Billings Classified Education Association, the Montana Federation of Public Employees Local 7770 and the Billings School District 2.
That previous agreement making masks optional had emerged as a flashpoint between the unions and Billings schools administrators as the COVID-19 Delta variant began spreading around the community this summer.
Union educators had balked when Superintendent Greg Upham sought their endorsement days before school started for a mask mandate for grades K-8, largely out of concerns that children under the age of 12 were ineligible for vaccination against COVID-19.
Upham then imposed a mask mandate anyway two days before the start of the school year, citing an outbreak among the Billings Skyview football team. The union urged its members to abide by the rule but expressed dismay at the administration's tone, including its assertion that violators of the mask policy would be subject to discipline. The union noted teachers had started the previous two years without a contract and didn't like the sudden change in working conditions without an agreement.
Three staff members who refused to wear masks the first day were suspended for five days. Two returned to work, while one quit over the mask policy.
According to the new policy, teachers and other staff agree to wear masks indoors at all times, with exceptions for eating, drinking, or occasions where distancing can be maintained.
The district also agreed to provide 10 days of paid leave for any staffer who tests positive for COVID-19, who must quarantine because of a close contact or who must care for a family member with the disease. Additional leave would be paid through a staffer's sick leave.
Also, a COVID advisory board will be formed, including members of all unions, the administration and public health professionals to advise the superintendent on mask policies.