BILLINGS — After the first day back at school on Monday with masks required for staff and students, Billings School District 2 Superintendent Greg Upham asked for understanding in the community as parents and teachers work through the COVID-19 pandemic together.
"I can surely understand the frustrations that everyone has with this, but the best thing to do is just continue to communicate. I mean, those are real feelings on both sides and we made the decision based on student health and we'll continue to move forward," Upham said.
Two days before the start of school, Upham reversed course and required masks to be worn by school staff and students. He made the move citing an outbreak that was identified last week that has seen six positive cases in the Skyview High School varsity football team.
About an hour before classes let out on the first day, Upham said he was sure in his decision to keep masks required in schools. He said his main goal is to keep students safe and in school.
“As a community, we really have to work to drive this virus back down. Our hospitals are at or nearing capacity, and that’s a factor in all of this. The delta variant is impacting younger people at a higher rate. We need to remind ourselves of that. I know everyone is experiencing COVID fatigue, gosh (me) right here, but we just can’t give up. We have to stay fighting and at the end of the day, we have to stay in school. If there’s one commonality to this, everybody agrees on one thing: stay in school," Upham said.
Not all parents agree with the masking requirement. Abraham Engholm recorded an interaction he had Monday morning with an administrator at Boulder Elementary School after his students were denied entry for refusing to wear a mask.
"We understand that these children right here are not truant, they are here and they are being denied public service through education in the state of Montana at Boulder Elementary," Engholm said in the video.
Watch the complete video clip below.
Upham said he was aware of the interaction and said the administrator did the right thing by offering the students masks and the opportunity to participate in remote learning this year.
"That's what we shared with our principals is to share with the families that there's a masking requirement in place. We require that if you are going to come into the building to have a mask. If you're not, you're going to have to remain outside. And that was the message. Very simple message, not confrontational. Just that we do have a masking requirement and we do ask you to stay outside and if you do want to come in then to wear a mask," Upham said.
Parents should contact their school principal as soon as possible if they would like to make arrangements for remote learning, Upham said.
Many COVID-19 prevention measures in the Billings schools will carry over from last year, Upham said. The increased number of cleaning staff will stay on and keep up with regular disinfecting. Schools still have the same increased air ventilation and filtration as was implemented last year and staff are cohorting and physically distancing to the best of their ability, Upham said.
“More so than anything, we know how to do this. We did it last year, so we need to incorporate some of the same strategies and I think that delta is a different virus too. We need to be ready for that," Upham said.
New this year, the district will pay for the COVID-19 test of any student, staff member or immediate household family member through St. John's United. Upham said parents can contact St. John's or their school to schedule a test. Parents will need their student's ID number to book an appointment.
Upham said he will continue to keep tabs on the COVID situation in the schools and continue to communicate with local health officials before making any changes to the mask requirement. Upham said he couldn't give an exact answer on how long masks will be required.
“I’m going to be honest, we have to watch it. It has to run its course and the shorter course is our ability to mitigate our behavior and vaccination. I can’t say that. I don’t know. We’ll monitor it week by week by week. Hopefully as short as we can, but who knows," Upham said.
At Will James Middle School, the hallways were bustling with kids excited to be back for the year. School Principal Becky Carlson said Monday was just for sixth-grade students, students who were new to the school, or students who were remote last year, but are back in the classroom this year.
“It’s been great. They’re excited to see their friends. We’ve had an opportunity to talk to our kids with our counselors who are new or had been remote last year. Kind of finding out where they’ve come from and just seeing the best ways that we can support them," Carlson said.
For the entirety of last school year, Billings students and teachers were required to wear masks. Carlson said it was relatively easy for students to get back in the rhythm of wearing masks.
"We provided at lunchtime, having kids, you know they don't have to have their masks on when they eat. When they're outside, they don't need to have them on. So just giving those opportunities to take breaks when needed and the teachers have been good about trying to support that too in their classrooms. It just seems, it was routine last year and they picked right up with the routine again this year," Carlson said.
If a student doesn't want to wear a mask, Carlson said staff will offer the student a mask, then have parents pick the student up if they keep refusing.
“If they’re refusing, then we just have to make phone calls home and have parents come pick them up and just kind of working through that process with our district, Superintendent Upham and our executive directors," Carlson said.
The role of principal at Will James is a new one for Carlson. Last year, she served as remote learning administrator for the district, at the head of about 2,500 students online education during the pandemic. She said a survey that went out to remote students last year helped staff identify who needs extra help getting back into the classroom.