BILLINGS - The Billings Public Schools mask mandate, which has been in place for the past two years, is set to end on Friday after school.
But not everyone is happy with Superintendent Greg Upham's decision.
The superintendent talked on Facebook Live about how attendance rates are back to pre-COVID numbers and staff absences have decreased significantly since the beginning of the year.
COVID-19 numbers may be improving in School District 2, but outside the walls of the classroom many metrics are in the red and Yellowstone county is continuing to lead the state in COVID-19 cases.
"Our data is lower than the county data and so that led to the decision to lift the mandate," Upham said.
"Even though the also county is still in the red, we're still peeking," said Darrell James, who substitute teaches next week. "We're still going up. We don't need masks, which makes no sense to me."
James is a retired professor and expects many to keep substituting even with the mask requirement lifted.
"I will still go into the classroom," James said. "I will wear my mask. I will ask the students to wear theirs. If they don't want to, they don't have to. I'll wear mine. But that other third the last year that aren't retired teachers or future teachers, I don't know. I don't know about them. It might be too big a risk for them."
The superintendent says he considered three criteria when lifting the mandate: COVID case numbers, staffing numbers, and the student attendance rate.
Before COVID, daily attendance in Billings was at around 93%.
For the first three days of this week, daily attendance was 89%, 89%, and 92%.
"We've been watching that closely," Upham said. "So that brings us pretty normal."
Staffing challenges have also improved.
At the start of this semester, the district had 50 staff members out sick on any given day.
The numbers this week have come in much better with 10 employees out Monday, 11 and 10 on Tuesday and Wednesday.
"Strangely I'm not concerned so much for myself because I'm triple vaxxed and can wear a mask," James said. "And I just do whatever I can. But I'm concerned for students taking things home to vulnerable people."
"COVID protocols will be the same other than the face covering," Upham said. "We now welcome optional face coverings."