Omicron rise has elimination of Billings schools mask mandate up in the air

Posted at 5:27 PM, Jan 04, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-05 10:23:35-05

BILLINGS — As children play during a recess break at schools across Billings, people are reminded that the kids are physically in school - a big difference from when they were all sent home during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.

Keeping it that way will be the number one goal when School District 2 Superintendent Greg Upham considers removing a mask mandate beginning on Jan. 17 in light of the new omicron variant surge.

"Everyone is exhausted with masking, but at the same time we’ve stayed in school," Upham said Tuesday.

For many kids across Montana, masks are now as common as a pencil and paper. Upham and the school board have received numerous requests to end masking. On Dec. 21, a group filed for a temporary restraining order to lift the mandate, which had not been granted as of Tuesday. But as COVID case numbers rise again, there is now growing support for masks, health officials say.

"Masking is one of the few mitigation resources we have," said Dr. Kelly Gardner, the communicable disease program manager for Yellowstone County. "Of course, vaccination is No. 1."

"In our last data, 11 percent of the 5-11-year-olds in the county are vaccinated," Upham said. "So that's definitely a concern."

Gardner is part of a team that meets weekly with local superintendents, and it won’t have good news at the next one.

"The numbers of COVID cases probably will have doubled by the end of the week, from the week before," Gardner said.

Data across the country shows omicron is more dangerous for children than adults, much as it was in the early days of the delta variant.

"Kids are getting sick at faster rates than they previously were,” she added.

But parents also have a social concern with abolishing the mask mandate.

"There's already enough social discrepancy in schools," said Clementine Lindley, a parent of two kids in SD2. "When these children are out on the playground, if they choose to mask, they risk hearing taunting or name-calling. We're setting them up for failure."

Upham says the masking decision will come down to information from the county’s medical personnel and could be made as late as the weekend before the Jan. 17 deadline. If medical teams say it’s a choice between masking or risking a school shutdown, there’s no debate.

"I had three months of remote learning, and then my youngest child was homeschooled last year," Lindley said. "It’s hard. It’s really hard."

"We have options available to us," Upham said, "and we'll use every option available to us to stay in school."