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Helena schools implement "mask-optional" policy while keeping eye on COVID situation

Helena Public Schools Lincoln Center
Posted at 5:35 PM, Jan 07, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-07 19:53:55-05

HELENA — When the Helena School District returned to classes Tuesday after winter break, masks were only recommended in elementary and middle schools. It was the first time since the start of the school year that masks weren’t required in pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade classes.

At Central Elementary School, principal Nick Radley said kids have adjusted well to the district’s mask policies, and that continued this week.

“Here, all of our families, our kids have been very respectful, whether it was wearing our masks or masks optional,” he said. “They’ve been great; they really have.”

Radley estimated about 30% to 40% of his students have continued to wear masks most of the time, with more putting them on when they’re working closely with others. The school is still taking other COVID precautions, including “podding” students to limit their close contacts.

Helena Public Schools Superintendent Rex Weltz announced the update to the mask policy in December. He says, at that time, the COVID situation in the district was close to what they were seeing in the summer.

“It has gone well, as well as we had hoped,” said Weltz. “What we didn’t know was how fast this variant came upon us.”

The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services confirmed the state’s first COVID case linked to the omicron variant on Dec. 20. By Dec. 31, the state was reporting omicron made up 79% of the COVID samples sequenced in the state. Since Dec. 20, the number of active COVID cases statewide has risen from 1,723 to 6,111.

Weltz says, before winter break, the district was seeing only one or two COVID cases a day. This week, they’ve had days with eight and ten.

“For us to make decisions, we’re really keeping an eye on what those look like,” he said. “Is it a trend, or is it an anomaly that these numbers are back up?”

Weltz says he’ll be closely watching two measures over the coming weeks: the number of COVID-related hospitalizations in Lewis and Clark County and the number of COVID cases within Helena Public Schools buildings. For the second of those measurements, he’ll rely on the district’s own testing of students, employees and their immediate families.

“Vaccination and rapid testing will be a key part of us staying in school,” said Weltz.

The district is offering drive-through rapid COVID tests for people connected to the district. They’ll be available Monday through Thursday, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., at the district’s new central office – the Lincoln Center, formerly Lincoln Elementary School, at 1325 Poplar St. You can schedule a testing appointment on the district’s website.

Weltz said the district acknowledges removing masks may help enhance education, and their goal is to keep them optional if possible. However, he said the top priority is to take whatever steps are needed to make sure in-person classes can continue.

“We want students in school, and so we’ll always run through the premise and the lens of ‘How do we keep our kids in school,’ so that we can provide the highest-quality education, versus what they would get if they were sitting at home or remote again.”

Weltz said he doesn’t want people to assume, if the district makes a change to the mask policy, that it will be that way for the foreseeable future. He says the COVID situation is ever-changing, and they will still need to reconsider the steps they’ve taken.

“What I want to make sure is that we don’t just make a decision and say, ‘Yep, that’s it,’” he said. “We’re going to make a decision and then analyze it.”