BILLINGS — Billings School Board trustees voted unanimously on Monday to amend its COVID-19 face mask policy to give the superintendent discretion on whether face coverings will be required to be worn by Billings public school staff and students.
"This is a recommendation that has been brought to us by our legal team. They feel that this is a prudent measure that enables the superintendent to be nimble if issues rise that need to be addressed," said Board Chair Greta Besch Moen.
Policy 1905 was previously passed by trustees on Jan. 25 and required school staff and students to wear masks except in certain situations. Students and staff wore masks for the 2020-21 school year but could shed them starting with summer classes in June after direction from Superintendent Greg Upham.
Billings students and staff will head back to class on Aug. 23 and likely won't be required to wear masks, Upham said.
"It is surely our intent that on Aug. 23, we will start the school year with masking being optional. We hope that decision is in the best interest for all parties," Upham said.
More changes to the school day include the elimination of block schedules for middle and high school students. As well, administrators won't be tasked with contact tracing if a COVID-19 case shows up in the classroom, Upham said.
"We will not be contact tracing this year. That authority has sunsetted. We are in conversations right now with RiverStone Health on what that's going to look like moving forward," Upham said.
The amended mask policy leaves discretion to the superintendent on whether to require masks in the Billings schools. It also requires the superintendent to brief trustees regularly regarding the district's COVID-19 protocols including masking.
Ahead of the trustee's vote, the Board heard about an hour of public comment from Billings parents speaking against the mask policy. Many said it should be up to personal choice whether a student should wear a mask. Others said the mask policy amendment gave too much power to the superintendent and allowed him not to need Trustee approval before making a decision.
"I'm just asking that you make masks voluntary. Give parents, students and teachers the choice and remove Policy 1905. And on top of that, do not allow administrative letters to be sent home recommending COVID vaccinations of students for a 99 percent-survivable virus," said Tara Goodwin, a Billings teacher and mother of four students.
As of July 14, 605,905 Americans have died from COVID-19 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Montana, 1,692 people have died from COVID-19, according to the state tracking map. Click here to read CDC recommendations on masks and vaccinations in school settings dated July 2021.
"Do not amend, (instead) remove. Masking should be a personal, parental choice, not not yours to mandate. I am also here tonight to demand you remove the state of emergency that you entered into last March and extended indefinitely last July," said another person during public comment.
Watch the video below to view the complete comment and others from the meeting.
Many of the people giving comment expressed disappointment at the lack of human connection brought abut through the Board's hybrid meeting format at the Lincoln Center. Trustees and district staff were located in their usual meeting room and some participated via video call. Public comment was taken via video call from the Lincoln Center auditorium, a location entirely separate from where trustees were located.
The district's amended mask policy allows for quick action if the COVID-19 situation worsens in Yellowstone County, Upham said.
"It's not meant as a secret way to invoke masking. It's meant to give us continued tools in the toolbox in the case that we have to move quickly or be nimble with whatever is presented to us. I hope that we don't need masking. I hope that we walk into the year as normal as possible. And another thing I hope for is that everyone is safe, all of our students and staff," Upham said.
Upham noted that he will continue to rely on the Unified Health Command to make informed decisions about COVID-19 safety measures in the Billings Schools. The Unified Health Command consists of Yellowstone County, Billings Clinic and St. Vincent Healthcare public health officials and infectious disease specialists.
"Things can change quite rapidly. It's not the intent to be veiled or disguised in masking. We recognize, my office fully recognizes the challenges that some with it. We also recognize the science and the recommendations from our medical professionals," Upham said.
Upham said that there's been no COVID-19 outbreaks that he's aware of that have originated from students not wearing masks in the largest summer school offering district staff have ever undertaken.
The district will also start the new year with no stand-alone remote learning platform, with a majority of students headed back to the in-person classes. Upham said school staff will make remote learning accommodations for students who with physical or mental health challenges. Parents should contact their school principal as soon as possible to make arrangements for their student, Upham said.