BILLINGS — When Billings students head back to in person classes on Aug. 24, much of their day will be spent wearing a mask other than periods for lunch, recess and exercise-related activities like physical education and sports practices.
Upham said all students and staff attending school classrooms will be required to wear masks, but it will not be a "zero-tolerance policy." Leeway will be given to students who have trouble breathing or have other sensory issues such as autism.
“(Masks) work and we are going to require them. Now with that being said, we know we are going to have students that have sensory issues, we know we’re going to have students with asthma issues, we’re going to have students who struggle," Upham said.
The school district will be able to provide some masks, but Upham asked parents for as much help as possible in obtaining them for their kids. Masks can be made out of a washable fabric or disposable material as long as they cover the nose and mouth.
Upham suggested that families get a hold of five masks per child to wear throughout the school week.
“Just like socks, and please change them every day. I know that was one of the concerns brought forward … that those face coverings need to be clean," Upham said.
Students will still have portions of the day where they go outside for recess. Upham said the district is still working on deciding whether the playground equipment will be open to the students. That decision hinges on whether it is feasible to disinfect the equipment in between each recess period.
During recess time, students would be required to wear a mask if physical distancing can't be obtained.
On masking during recess, Upham said, "The answer is yes or no. If they are in a situation where we physically distance, the answer is no. If they are in an instructional area and they can physically distance, the answer is no. If they can’t, then the answer would be yes.”
Lunchtime will be another period where masks aren't required. In some elementary schools, lunch may be served in the classroom, but not every classroom is large enough to space students out six feet, the preferred distance when masks aren't worn.
“In some places, we can’t get the six feet. So that’s where we have to do alternative pieces, maybe outside, in hallways. We have a lot of square footage in our buildings. So we’re just going to have to maximize that, and principals are working hard to look at those types of things," Upham said.
The three Billings public high schools don't have enough space to physically distance the entire student population in their lunchrooms, Upham said. In other years, the high schools have open campus lunches where students can drive off campus to eat. Also, the high school lunches are usually split up into two periods with half the school eating at a time.
Upham didn't know if the high school campuses would be open for lunch. If they were, that may leave less students staying in the lunchrooms to eat.
"I’ve had thoughts of allowing an open campus. It makes sense if students are physically distancing and walking out. As far as the mental health, as far as having an opportunity to have lunch with your friends, the social, emotional piece. Obviously they have a responsibility with masking if they are within six feet of each other in their route to McDonalds or any other place," Upham said.
High school students also may be spaced into auditoriums, gymnasiums or hallways to eat, Upham said. As well, lunch pick up will still be offered for students who will be learning online.
At this point, masks won't need to be worn during sports practices, Upham said.
“In any physically hard activity, the answer is no, but there are some questions with that. Those are yet to be answered, but no we aren’t requiring students to wear face coverings during practices," Upham said.
Upham has heard from the summer school teachers doing kindergarten jump start that it's tough for teachers to be heard by students through a mask. It's also hard for those teachers to teach reading to their students because no one can see each others' mouths.
Plastic face shields have been brought up as a solution to that problem, but Upham said the face shields won't work. Their purpose is to protect the wearer from disease. The face shields do not protect the wearer from spreading disease, he said.
The district is looking into other solutions on the market like clear masks to allow students to be able to see their teacher's mouth when instructing.
"New products are coming out all the time. I’m being inundated in my emails with try this, try that. We’re looking at a lot of different things and we’re looking at masks that have a clear opening," Upham said.