BILLINGS — Billings Public Schools' board of trustees chose to rescind their mandated mask policy during a meeting on Monday. In the days after, many parents said they were relieved they can make their own choices regarding masking their kids, while others said they were concerned with the board’s decision.
Another school year is just weeks away and when students return to class, things will look like they used to before COVID-19.
“All I want is to start the year in a normal matter and go forward from there, and so we’re excited,” said Billings schools Superintendent Greg Upham on Thursday.
The mandated mask policy has been rescinded for both students and staff, but those who wish to continue to use a mask can do so.
“We’ve been watching the cases go down, and there’s been energy about the mask versus no mask. Our trustees felt that it was probably appropriately time to do that, and I felt the same way,” Upham said.
Montana reported 2,287 new COVID-19 cases over the past week, with Yellowstone County leading the way with 332 new cases over the week, according to the state's COVID-19 tracker. While case counts have been steadily rising in recent weeks as new variants arise, COVID deaths and hospitalizations have stayed relatively flat in the region.
Also case counts in Montana are far below the height of the Omicron variant in January, when the state saw 2,000 or more cases per day, not per week like now.
In Billings, parents like Luke Hudson couldn’t be more relieved about the rescinding of the mask mandate. He has three kids in the Billings Public School system.
“To see the board finally lift the emergency declaration and to remove the mandate was a long time coming,” said Hudson, who started a parent group during the last school year urging the district to remove mask mandates.
Hudson was one of the most vocal opponents of the school district’s mask policy last year. He said he’s not against masks, he just believes it’s a decision parents should be able to make.
“Mandates don’t work to prevent the spread of the disease. But mandates do have harms and that’s what we tried to bring to the attention of the board, so we’re glad to see them move on,” said Hudson.
He may now be celebrating, but others are concerned.
“The only problem is that decision affects all the children, and it affects the rest of the population,” said parent Maggie Miller.
Miller is worried about her daughter, who will be attending West High this year.
“I know she has anxiety knowing she has a parent who has multiple sclerosis and has a more severe reaction to things like COVID and kind of worried about bringing that home,” Miller said.
Miller caught COVID in October of 2020. She was sick for about four months and when she started feeling better, she suffered a relapse from her multiple sclerosis.
She ultimately had to quit her job as a social worker because of how COVID affected her health.
“If the numbers were better, I would totally understand taking back the policy. But the problem is currently, our numbers are worse than they were last year this time,” said Miller.
Upham said if COVID numbers do spike, a mandated mask policy could return, but like most parents, he’s hopeful.
“I think anything’s appropriate to whatever the situation or circumstances are. I don’t foresee it, but it's there if we need it,” Upham said.