BILLINGS — Billings School Board trustees received an update on the county COVID-19 situation relating to schools from Yellowstone County Public Health Officer John Felton Monday, as positive cases start to trickle into Billings-area schools.
“We had a couple of weeks where we were showing improvement in things like case counts, new cases per 100,000, positivity rate. The last few days have been pretty rough," Felton told trustees.
Felton gave an overview on where the county stands on four COVID-19 metrics public health is using to determine whether to stop or keep in person classes in session.
The first two metrics are data-driven. The second two require analysis from members of the public health medical/technical technical team made up of community infectious disease professionals, Felton said.
The metrics are assigned a color of green, yellow or red to indicate their status or stress level. The color red indicates worsening status. Three of the four need to be red for a period of two weeks in order for public health to make any recommendations about schools, Felton said.
Yellowstone County Public Health staff watch the number of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population over a seven day period. Felton reported the week ending Sept. 19 saw 31 new cases. The previous week ending Sept. 12 saw 18 new cases. This metric currently has a red status. It will drop to yellow if new cases per 100,000 people cases reach between 10-25.
The second data-driven metric is the county positivity rate, which is calculated by the state Department of Public Health and Human Services. Felton didn't have data for the week ending Sept. 19, but said the positivity rate has been dropping for the past three weeks from 10 to 6 percent. Normally, the state releases this number on Tuesday, Felton said.
The positivity rate was about six percent and had a yellow status as of Sept. 19, according to RiverStone Health's web site. The positivity rate's status will drop to green when it is observed at less than five percent.
The following two COVID-19 measurements require interpretation from the public health medical/technical team. The professionals will look at the proportion of new cases in children 19-years-old and younger along with analyzing possible clusters in schools.
Felton said new cases in children were at 18 percent on the week ending Sept. 19. On the week ending Sept. 12, children had 9 percent of the new cases. Felton attributed some of the increase to more students getting tested earlier.
“Some of that has to do with what we believe is a really good thing happening which is our schools particularly are having a very low threshold for encouraging kids to get tested. Where as, in past weeks maybe those kids might not have been tested, they are (now) getting tested," Felton said.
Felton didn't mention a color status for the new cases in children measurement at the meeting.
The other metric that requires analysis is the capacity of the local health care system and public health system. Felton said the health care system is currently at a yellow status, with 56 people hospitalized in Billings with COVID-19.
The public health system currently has a red status due to high demand for contact tracing from rising case counts, Felton said.
Felton said he meets weekly with Yellowstone County school superintendents weekly and athletic directors biweekly to share information about COVID-19 as it relates to the school year. He said there's a meeting scheduled for Wednesday for the medical/technical team to bring an update to school administrators.
Billings School District 2 Superintendent Greg Upham gave an update to trustees about the COVID-19 situation in schools. He said the contact tracing and quarantining process in schools is being stepped up with extra training given to some school staff members.
The health department will deputize building administrators, school nurses and the leaning support team to become agents of public health, providing the training in contact tracing and confidentiality procedures, Upham said.
The goal is to have close contacts in schools identified and quarantined as soon as possible to prevent further COVID-19 spread, Upham said.
“The building administrator can go to the classroom and/or classrooms and/or activities, immediately identify the close contacts and quarantine those individuals. I think it’s as effective of a program as we can have at this time. I am concerned with the increase in cases that if we had to rely on public health being 24 or 48 hours behind, we could increase the (case) numbers," Upham said.
The training for contact tracing is scheduled for some staff members to start on Wednesday, Upham said.
In addition to in person classes, Billings School District 2 offered students the option of all-remote learning this year. Upham said the total number of students enrolled in the district sits at 16,612, with 2,584 students enrolled in remote-only classes.
About 112 staff members are teaching the remote students. Upham said the district was able to accommodate all staff that requested a remote position this year. The remote learning platform was paid for with the help of about $3 million in federal CARES act (coronavirus relief) money.
Upham said the remote learning platform may run out of money if the district chooses to offer a similar curriculum in the next year and beyond if the pandemic continues.
"Being able to continue with both platforms in the future, not this year but if it extends itself into the future year or years, will take additional funding to at least offer in the same capacity,” Upham said.
The question looming over the school year is whether a major outbreak will force classrooms, school buildings, or the entire district to rapidly switch the in person students to the online platform. If a large-scale outbreak happens, Upham said teachers currently in the classroom would teach the same students online.
The district has enough devices to give out to its student population, but some may have to be shifted from other schools to accommodate the need, Upham said.