BILLINGS — New COVID-19 numbers from Billings School District 2 recapping the week ending Aug. 28 showed 49 cases in students and 12 among staff, approaching a number the district hasn't seen since last fall, Superintendent Greg Upham said on Wednesday.
Last week, the district recorded a total of 34 new cases among students and staff.
“More than what we anticipated. 71 was one of our highs last year. That was in the November, December times. 49 (student cases) is concerning," Upham said.
Yellowstone County saw 676 new COVID-19 cases last week, according to data from RiverStone Health. Children age 0 to 19 accounted for 114, or 21 percent, of new cases in the county last week.
The Billings elementary schools have seen the most total cases so far with 16 cases among students and nine cases among staff. The middle schools are at 15 student cases and one staff case. The three high schools and career center have had 18 total student cases and two total staff cases.
The school district's case counts account for parents or employees who have reported a positive test to administrators. Click here to view the data provided by the school district.
This year, a majority of the approximately 16,000 Billings public school students are back in the classroom. Since the first day of class last week, teachers and staff have been required to wear masks.
Upham said the high spread of the virus early on in the school year was something school administrators expected.
“It’s doing what we anticipated it would do, which is one of the reasons that we wanted to mask early. We’re going to watch it. The school-age case counts are rising rapidly. It’s concerning and we’ll do the precautionary measures that we’ve always taken and do the right thing. We’ll just continue to work with this virus and do our best with it," Upham said.
The question of whether face masks should be required or optional in schools has drawn out differing opinions across the state. Gov. Greg Gianforte and the state health department issued a rule on Tuesday, encouraging school districts to consider public comment before making masking decisions. Upham said the Billings schools will continue to require masks until case counts drop.
“We reviewed it with our legal team and then we consulted with the other double A schools. We do a lot of conversing back and forth and we saw that the information from DPHHS (the state health department) said, ‘should.’ We didn’t see it as a mandate. We’ll definitely take those items under consideration that were shared in that information and we’ll continue with our mask requirements until our numbers come down," Upham said.
In the run up to the start of school, the Board of Trustees heard hours of public comment at multiple public meetings regarding masks.
Another provision called out in the new rule, notes students should be able to opt out of health mandates due to moral convictions, religious reasons, or other mental/physical health reasons.
Upham said the Billings schools are offering virtual learning to students who wish not to wear a mask.
About 71 students have so far enrolled in the virtual classes. The deadline for parents to register is Sept. 3.
“We planned on a virtual option. We wanted to make sure that it had elasticity and flexibility in it, and that’s proven to be very fortuitous for us right now," Upham said.
Last week, three Billings school staff members were suspended for five days without pay for refusing to wear a mask. Upham said Wednesday that two of the staff members have returned to work and one has resigned.