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Missoula schools to require face coverings for first 6 weeks

| August 13, 2021 7:00 AM

MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) — With the new school year approaching, districts are setting mask policies to reduce the spread of the coronavirus as cases surge in Montana.

The Missoula County school board on Tuesday voted 6-3 to require students, staff and visitors to wear face coverings for at least the first six weeks of classes, based on the latest guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Masks will be required on buses, but can be removed while outside or while eating or drinking.

About 100 people gathered near the school district office to protest the proposed mask requirement, the Missoulian reported. The board meeting was held virtually.

Under the new policy, teachers will be able to allow mask breaks, where students can remove facial coverings, if there is adequate space for social distancing. Teachers also can remove their own masks while working alone.

In Helena, the school board voted 7-1 on Tuesday to give the superintendent the discretion to require masks at elementary and middle schools on a week-to-week basis, based on the rate of spread of the coronavirus in the community.

Superintendent Rex Weltz can require masks if the COVID-19 transmission level in Lewis and Clark County is considered "substantial" or "high," the Independent Record reported. The county was listed on Tuesday as having substantial community transmission.

Masks will not be required at Helena's high schools because those students are eligible for vaccines.

Weltz said the goal is for students to have a school year that is as "normal as possible."

Some districts, including Billings, have made masks optional, while others are still deciding on a policy. Classes start during the last full week of August in many areas.

Montana reported 376 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, a day after reporting 493 — the highest single day number since January. There were 164 people reported hospitalized Wednesday, up 10 from a day earlier, according to the state. In June, the daily average for hospitalizations was 54.

The Missoula City-County Health Department on Wednesday announced the recent death of a male age 19 or younger who had tested positive for COVID-19.

The county initially said the person died of COVID-19, but said the hospital later reported there were extenuating circumstances, and COVID-19 has not been confirmed as the cause of death. Further investigation is needed, officials said.