BILLINGS — Billings public school staff and students will likely be without a requirement to wear COVID-19 face masks when they head back to the classroom for the 2021-22 school year.
Some parents said the decision of whether to wear a mask in school should be a personal choice, while others were concerned about the delta variant of coronavirus and said masks should be required in schools next year.
“I feel like masks should be optional at this point. So many people have decided to go for the vaccines. We always see this, ‘Oh, fully vaccinated staff, guests can not wear a mask.’ It should be like that for the school system as well," said Morgan Sheffelman, a parent of an eight-year-old daughter at McKinley Elementary School, in an interview with MTN News.
The question of masks in schools draws a lot of attention. A change to the Billings schools mask policy that allowed the superintendent more discretion on whether the face coverings are required drew about an hour of public comment at a Monday Billings School Board meeting.
“With the delta variant and other variants that are probably going to mutate as people don’t get the vaccine. That’s a real cause for concern, especially with school right around the corner," said Meghan Klassic, a parent to three kids in Billings, in a separate interview.
Klassic's two oldest kids attend Arrowhead Elementary School and were in kindergarten and first grade last year. She said her kids adjusted well to wearing a mask during in-person classes last school year.
“They wore the masks without complaints. They were really compliant. They were always really quick to remember to put it on, (have extras) at school in case theirs got dirty. My two-year-old son, every time we go to the grocery store, he asks for more soap. So they’re really getting it ingrained how important it is to be sanitized and be healthy not just for themselves, but for the community," Klassic said.
The adjustment to masks was more difficult for the Scheffelman family. Scheffelman said her daughter has ADHD. The family worried at the start of the year that their daughter would get in trouble for not consistently wearing her mask at school.
“Thankfully she didn’t get into as much trouble as we thought she was going to. The school was very understanding with her diagnosis and didn’t see that it wasn’t her fault," Scheffelman said.
For the entirety of the 2020-21 school year, Billings students attending in-person classes were required to wear masks, unless participating in physical activity or while eating meals. Last year, Superintendent Greg Upham said the mask rules were not a "zero tolerance policy."
Scheffelman said she wondered if other students with special needs had as good of an experience with mask discipline as her daughter.
“We had a wonderful teacher last year who had multiple kids in her class that had ADHD. I’m very thankful for that. I wonder if we had a different teacher, would it have been a different outcome for her? Would she have been told more that you need to put your mask on?" Scheffelman said.
Scheffelman was a teacher's aid at Laurel Middle School last year and said she spent a lot of time trying to police mask wearing among students when they should have been learning.
For the upcoming school year in Billings, no stand-alone remote learning platform will be offered and a majority of last year's 2,500 remote learners will be back in the classroom. For Klassic, she said her biggest fear about sending her kids back was that they would spread the virus.
“When you are inside in an enclosed room, it just has nowhere to go. My biggest worry is sending them back and then we’ll be back in lockdown or there will be more variants to come from this as those go unvaccinated," Klassic said.
Kids under 12 years old still can't receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has observed that COVID-19 can spread from school outbreaks to larger segments of a community. July CDC notes on Covid-19 transmission in schools also note children typically get less severe and asymptomatic cases compared to adults.
Billings schools recorded 986 total student COVID-19 cases for the 2020-21 school year and 327 cases among staff. Since summer classes have started, students and staff have been without masks. Upham told trustees at the July Board meeting that he hasn't heard of any outbreaks that have happened in the summer classes so far.
There's still about a month of summer vacation left in Billings until classes resume on Aug. 23, and rising COVID-19 case could necessitate Upham to change his mind on a mask requirement. The district's new mask policy allows the superintendent discretion on whether to require students and staff to wear masks.
Upham told trustees at the July meeting that he will continue to rely on local health professionals to inform decisions about COVID-19 safety measures in the schools.