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K-12 Schools Seeing More COVID Cases Than Last Year As Parents, State Superintendent Protest Masks

A pile of surgical masks.
Marco Verch
A pile of surgical masks.

COVID-19 cases in K-12 schools are higher now than they were at the same time last year. On Wednesday, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services released its weekly report on the number of COVID-19 cases in K-12 schools.

I asked Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen what she noticed in the report about a month into the school year.

“What I believe is that we’re tracking a little bit lower than what we did last year at this very same time,” Arntzen says.

There are five times more cases of COVID-19 in Montana schools than there were last year, according to state data. There are currently around 2,000 cases among K-12 students and staff compared with 433 in 2020.

“Again understanding that if we’re dealing with a variant, a virus that can mutate, we really don’t know what the next step is going to be, what the numbers may tell next month even,” Arntzen says.

Arntzen points out that there has been no deaths in Montana’s school-age population. This is accurate according to DPHHS.

While children are less likely to suffer terminal consequences than adults, Missoula County COVID-19 incident commander Cindy Farr cautions that COVID-19 infections in students should not be taken lightly.

“It is a common misconception that COVID-19 doesn’t get children very sick,” Farr says.

CDC data indicates that hospital visits and COVID-19 cases among school-aged children has grown since the Delta variant rose to prominence.

Public health experts say that universal masking in schools would prevent the spread of COVID-19. But some parents adamantly oppose school mask mandates, saying it should be a choice.

Some gathered at a Friday rally in Helena to protest such measures. Arntzen attended and spoke to protesters, and in an interview after, said that school officials should not require masks.

“That is not an education discussion. That is a discussion between families and their personal health care provider,” Arntzen says.

About a month into the school year, Gallatin County health officials reported that schools in Gallatin County that started the school year without a mask requirement had more COVID-19 cases among students. They say those schools had three times more COVID-19 cases per 1,000 students than schools that started the year with a mask requirement.

Olivia Weitz covers Bozeman and surrounding communities in Southwest Montana for Yellowstone Public Radio. She has reported for Northwest News Network and Boise State Public Radio and previously worked at a daily print newspaper. She is a graduate of the University of Puget Sound and the Transom Story Workshop.