BILLINGS — A temporary restraining order looking to lift a Billings School District 2 mask mandate was rejected by 13th District Court Judge Jessica Fehr Wednesday.
The ruling paves the way for a preliminary injunction hearing on Jan. 28, where the Billings community plaintiff group will be allowed to attach anonymous affidavits from SD2 employees.
SD2 Superintendent Greg Upham told Q2 Tuesday that he still planned to lift the mandate Jan.17, but a spike in COVID-19 positives due to the omicron variant had him concerned.
As the complicated and contentious issue continues, the community group's message is simple: COVID-19 case data in Yellowstone County schools does not support a mandate.
"We’re not drawing hard conclusions," said Luke Hudson. "All we’re saying is the data there doesn’t seem to be of statistical significance."
Hudson started comparing masked and non-masked schools at the beginning of the semester, with DPHHS and Montana OPI enrollment data.
In a snapshot of local high schools, Billings Central, which had a mask mandate for most of the first semester, saw just five total cases for a 1.5 percent transmission rate. Laurel, which does not require masks, saw 20 total cases but with almost double the enrollment, so its positivity rate was still low at 3.16%. Lockwood though, which also has no mandate, saw 31 positives in 389 students for a nearly 8 percent mark.
The county’s largest schools - West, Senior, and Skyview high schools, which all fall under the SD2 mask rule - have between 3.6 and 4.9 percent transmission rates.
When you look at the total numbers: in masked schools, the first semester saw 787 positive cases in 18,000 students for a rate of 4.3 percent, while non-masked schools had 254 cases in 7,400 students for a 3.4 percent rate.
"It’s a very difficult thing to study because there’s so much going on," said Justan Baker, a RiverStone Health epidemiologist.
Baker says comparing COVID-19 transmission numbers among schools depends on a number of factors: testing numbers, school populations, other mitigation techniques being employed. He says proper mask-wearing is without a doubt a deterrent for COVID-19 infection, but the key word is proper.
"If you were to look around between periods at students, even if they have a masking policy, you might still and probably will see students that have (masks) down below their nose or around their chin," Baker said.
"If you’ve been in a school, proper mask use isn’t a thing," Hudson replied. "That’s why mandates don’t make sense. When masks are properly used, they work, but we don’t see proper use in people, and that's the biggest variable we have in society - people."
Hudson says he is not anti-mask, just anti-mandate. He believes the matter should be a personal choice, since everybody has their own situation.
"My kids have difficulty with communication. They have difficulty understanding and being heard, so that makes it hard in a classroom," he said. "So we felt early on that parents should have the right to decide for themselves."
Billings Catholic Schools switched back to a mask optional policy Monday. President Shaun Harrington said the choice was based on local Unified Health Command indicators showing transmission rates in the county and in Catholic school buildings in a 'green' acceptable zone.
New DPHHS case numbers for schools are due out Jan. 12, at which point Harrington says he will re-evaluate the masking policy.