HELENA — Helena Public Schools leaders have announced that they expect to require face masks for students and staff when they initially return to class.
Superintendent Tyler Ream said the district will mandate mask use during the first phases of their school reopening plan, unless there is a documented medical or behavioral reason not to wear one. He said leaders felt it was a necessary step.
“We want to include any potential precaution that we can put in place,” Ream said. “If it has an impact on reducing virus transmission, then we want to include that in our plan – and masks certainly do that. We certainly wanted to make sure that our students, our employees and their families are as safe as possible.”
Gov. Steve Bullock instituted an order last week, requiring masks in many businesses and public areas, in counties with four or more active COVID-19 cases. However, he said schools were not automatically included in that requirement.
Ream said, as the school district has been finalizing its comprehensive plan for returning to campus, leaders decided they had to include masks.
“I understand masks can be somewhat controversial, but in terms of knocking down virus transmission from person to person, there’s an effectiveness standpoint there,” he said.
Students and employees will be encouraged to bring their own cloth masks, but the district says schools will be able to provide some masks for those who need them.
Ream said the district will work with Lewis and Clark Public Health to determine what flexibility they may be able to include. For example, he said students might not have to wear face coverings during outdoor recess, and that some students – especially younger kids – may be able to use face shields instead of masks.
“The entire school year in some ways is going to be a work in progress, and we’re going to have to problem-solve along the way to make sure that our students are comfortable, but they’re also safe,” said Ream.
Helena Public Schools’ plan for returning to class will include four phases: fully remote learning, rotating students between classrooms and online attendance, in-person instruction with significantly modified operations, and a return to near-normal procedures. The district may move back and forth among them.
Ream said they would maintain the mask requirement until the last phase: near-normal operations.