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Mask decision for Billings schools imminent as Upham receives dire numbers from health leaders

Posted at 5:21 PM, Jan 12, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-12 20:24:23-05

BILLINGS — After Wednesday’s latest meeting with county health leaders, Billings School District 2 superintendent Greg Upham says he has all the information he needs whether to repeal the Billings Public Schools mask mandate. A decision is likely in the next 24-48 hours amid rapidly rising COVID numbers.

"We’re seeing numbers of new cases we’ve never seen before," Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton said Wednesday.

The county’s Unified Health Command has four COVID-19 indicators that range from green to yellow to red, with red meaning the highest level of mitigation recommended. Three are currently in the yellow with one red, but it’ll be worse next week, according to health officials.

Yellowstone County COVID numbers
The Yellowstone County Unified Health Command's latest report shows all four COVID-19 indicators trending to the most alarming 'red' zone.

"They’re still yellow because we require two weeks of data before we update them, but they’re all trending worse, to red,” Felton said.

The district's newest weekly COVID report from Jan. 2-Jan. 7 showed 161 positive cases. That’s up from just 10 total the week before holiday break, a massive increase Upham did not expect.

"Not that much," the superintendent said. "We saw a decline as I had said in messaging before that, so I was honestly quite shocked."

Yellowstone County red indicator
Yellowstone County's COVID-19 test positivity rate rose from 5% to 20% in one week.

Districts around the state are seeing the same surge. Massive staff shortages have Great Falls in remote learning all week, and Bozeman's district has re-instated a mask mandate.

Upham spoke to all of the Class AA superintendents in a call earlier Wednesday.

"I don’t think any of us anticipated how rapidly the cases were going to impact our school districts," he said. "And that's what it is - not just the volume, but the speed."

Upham waited until the day before school started last August to reinstate the SD2 mandate. That same deadline would mean an announcement Sunday, but he says he won’t wait that long. But also that decision will be re-evaluated quickly.

"I’ll look at it daily, weekly," Upham said, "to try to get to a point where we can go mask optional. We're dealing with mask fatigue and mask compliance issues, there's no doubt. We’d like to get cases down and get to a normal operating process as much as possible."

"What we’re seeing now is huge," Felton added, "but I’m concerned the numbers will keep getting bigger because we’re on the back end of this thing (in the country)."