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As School Begins, COVID Cases Are Already Disrupting Montana Classrooms

Sarah Le Clerc

In the early days of the school year some Montana districts are already closing classrooms due to COVID-19 cases.

In a letter to parents Wednesday, the Monforton School District outside of Bozeman announced it’s shifting all of its sixth and seventh graders, as well as a fifth-grade class, to remote learning.

Superintendent Darren Strauch says the number of close contacts stemming from the seven positive cases in the district is straining staffing. The district also wants to prevent possible spread in the classroom where masking is optional. Strauch says the school board is likely to review the masking policy in the coming weeks.

“And we’re exploring whether or not we need to transition back to more of a cohort-based model that we were with last year where the students have a little less movement around the building,” he says.

COVID cases have also closed classrooms in Park and Yellowstone counties, and led to the cancelation of a football game between Columbia Falls and East Helena high schools. Billings Public Schools Superintendent Greg Upham said in a video update Thursday that there were nearly 50 positive cases in the district during the first week of school. Last year’s peak for positive cases was in the 70s.

“So in comparison to kind of where we were at the peak last year and where we are after the first week of school this year, it’s concerning,” he says.

The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services says that it will begin releasing weekly counts of public school COVID cases later this month.

Cindy Farr with the Missoula City-County Health Department says there have been minimal COVID cases reported in Missoula County schools so far, but adds that the proportion of active cases countywide coming from children is growing. As of Thursday, kids ages zero to 19 accounted for 15% of all active cases in Missoula County. Speaking a day later, Farr said that number continued to grow.

“I just looked at the numbers today [Friday], and today we’re up to 17%," she says.

Farr says kids made up around 20% of the county’s cases last fall. But with the more contagious Delta variant spreading, and less masking and social distancing in the community, the county could see a larger proportion of cases from kids.

The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that children accounted for 22 percent of all active COVID cases nationally as of last week.

Farr says pediatric hospitalizations have ticked up slightly in Missoula, but whether that is the beginning of a larger trend is unclear. Billings Clinic told MTPR earlier this week the hospital has begun to see more pediatric patients hospitalized for COVID-19, but the overall numbers remain low.
Copyright 2021 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Aaron is Montana Public Radio's Flathead reporter.