Chief Joseph Signs

Signs are taped to the inside of the windows at Chief Joseph Middle School on April 27 in Bozeman.

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The Bozeman School District will require staff and students, if and when they return to classrooms, to wear masks to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The school district is still finalizing plans for what reopening could look like and will likely make a recommendation to the school board in early August. But if schools reopen for in-person instruction, which is the goal, face coverings will be mandatory, said Superintendent Bob Connors.

“If our kids are in school, then we’re definitely doing the masks,” Connors said.

Gov. Steve Bullock issued a statewide mask mandate last week for indoor public spaces in counties with four or more active cases. However, schools were not included in that rule, leaving the decision to local administrators.

A draft that outlines the Bozeman school district’s mask mandate says it’ll be updated as more information becomes available. The mandate is guided by public health advice from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Connors said there will be exemptions and adaptations to the mask rule, like for those who can’t wear a mask due to a demonstrated medical condition. The draft says staff who teach preschool through second grade will wear clear masks so they’re faces are visible, which is important for language and vocabulary development.

Students will be asked to obtain masks as part of their school supply lists, although the school district will welcome cloth mask donations to distribute to those in need, Connors said.

The Bozeman School District’s decision comes as Gallatin County continues to see a rapid rise in new COVID-19 cases. The Gallatin City-County Health Department confirmed 39 new cases locally on Thursday, which is the second highest single day increase the county has seen. Over the last week, 473 people have been tested in the county.

Gallatin County counts 713 cases overall, with 89 active. There are three people hospitalized due to the virus. One person has died.

Montana added 97 new cases statewide Thursday for a total of 2,910. Of those, 1,280 are active. The state added another death in Yellowstone County tied to the Canyon Creek Memory Care outbreak, which has resulted in 14 deaths total. Statewide, 43 people have died and 183 people are hospitalized.

Public health experts have reiterated for months that until a COVID-19 vaccine is available, the best ways to combat the virus are through social-distancing, frequent hand-washing and wearing a mask.

The Montana University System announced last week that it would implement a mask mandate on college campuses to align with Bullock’s mandate. The Billings Gazette reported earlier in July that Billings Public Schools will also likely require students and staff to wear masks.

On Friday morning, the Gallatin City-County Board of Health will vote on its own mask requirement, which could align with the statewide mandate, or be more stringent.

The draft of the Bozeman schools’ mandate says the mask-wearing in addition to social distancing are optimal for slowing the spread of COVID-19 in public settings, and that in-person instruction is optimal for students.

“The intent is to get our kids back in school,” Connors said.

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Shaylee Ragar can be reached at sragar@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2607.