BILLINGS — No final decision has been made, but the Billings School District 2 superintendent and Yellowstone County health officer agree the risk of COVID-19 spread is likely too high to send students back to school for the remainder of the year.
Superintendent Greg Upham updated school board trustees about how the end of the school year is beginning to shake out in their Monday virtual board meeting.
"I just don’t. I don’t believe it’s in our best interest to return to school because of the safety issues that are involved and our ability to manage those safety issues in conjunction with keeping everyone safe, staff included," Upham said.
Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton echoed that message to trustees.
“I am really concerned from a public health perspective the impact of sending some proportion of 17,000 students and some proportion of 2,000 staff members back to school when we’re really trying to minimize the risk of an explosive growth. The last thing that we want to do is go backwards,” Felton said.
The main thing administrators are looking at is student safety if kids were to go back to class for only a matter of weeks.
“I’m not saying that we should or shouldn’t. I’m just presenting information that we need to consider moving forward," Upham said.
Felton and Upham have been in contact discussing student safety and the reopen of schools for the past few weeks. Both said if students were to come back, social-distancing procedures would have to be put in place. Something Felton described as, "probably to the point of being impossible.”
On implementing social distancing Upham said, "not that we wouldn’t try, or not that we wouldn’t attempt to. But if you walk into a kindergarten classroom, they don’t know that they’re not supposed to come in contact with each other. You’d be going against everything that we’re trying to prevent."
Felton mentioned the hallways of a high school also have all sorts of social interactions within close proximity.
The next step for safety is the use of masks when social distancing can't be maintained, Felton said. Securing either disposable or washable masks for the Billings schools approximately 17,000 students and 2,000 staff would be a tall order, Upham said.
“It depends on the number of students that you have in the schools as to how many masks would be needed. Those masks would either have to be paper masks that would need to be discarded. So, where do the replacements come from?" Upham said.
Felton said he wasn't sure if masks were a "viable option."
Reducing the number of students in school per day is also an option to increase safety. Upham described the options of chopping the alphabet in half and having sections of students come every other day. Or they could split students up by grade level.
But splitting students up by day would be tough for families with multiple children, Upham said.
"And thinking about the reopening of the state, we want to be respectful to our families who would go back to work and have children at home. That’s a factor in all of this that we have to consider as education and as a community too. The overarching principle in this is public safety," Upham said.
Upham said there isn't really a good option for reducing the number of students in school at a time.
High school graduation also seems like it won't happen. Even if students family aren't allowed to attend, the three ceremonies for the public high schools containing about 400 students each doesn't seem like a good idea to Felton.
"Even if you take away all of the family members, I think graduation is a significant risk. I understand the social aspects of it. My comments are on the basis on what I think makes sense for public health and the welfare of the community. You put a lot of those kids together, my concern is two weeks later we start to have cases. Because then they go and visit more friends and they see their family and their family sees family members. There’s just a big chance for spread," Felton said.
Felton and Upham said they have heard of the positive results from a socially distanced Air Force Academy cadet graduation ceremony that happened on Saturday. The cadets marched six feet apart and were seated away from each other the same distance.
Felton said he doesn't think high school students would be able to follow the same rigor.
"I think we have to bear in mind that those are first of all, they’re older students, they’re also students in an environment where following orders is everything. My guess is if you put a micrometer between those cadets, there would be 8 feet to the hundredth of an inch. They follow orders, that’s what they do. I think that is a very different scenario then a lot of 17-18-year-olds who are very excited about graduation and being with their friends," Felton said.
The decision on whether to open rests between a few different governmental bodies. If Gov. Steve Bullock gives the okay, Upham said the governor has indicated he would give some local control to the local schools on the decision. But that is not confirmed.
If the governor and Felton both give the okay, Felton said the decision would be up to the school board.
“This is not my decision. It is (the school board’s)," Felton said.
Other districts haven't waited for Bullock. Lockwood school officials announced Monday they were canceling in-person classes for the year, although they are continuing distance learning
Felton and Upham said they're expecting more from Bullock on Wednesday about what his plan to reopen Montana will entail. The governor's office has not announced what day he will make that announcement, though it will be some time this week.
Felton described how he still has control over public health decisions in Yellowstone County.
“The higher standard controls. So I could make a determination that is more restrictive than the governor, and in Yellowstone County that restriction holds. If my restriction is less than the governor, his holds," Felton said.
Felton said his support of the school closure stems from new information learned about COVID-19. He said people can spread the virus for up to 43 hours before they show symptoms. As well, people who don't show symptoms but are still technically infected, can spread the virus.
Felton said he doesn't want to overwhelm the health care system if the strategy to reopen ends up being too aggressive.
"Then we’re going to find ourselves in the position of do we need to close everything back down? That is the one place that nobody, whether you’re talking about public health, businesses, state government - nobody wants to go there. I think we need to be really careful with the restart that we are doing it in a way that keeps people safe and minimizes the risk of explosive growth," Felton said.