COVID

A mask sits in icy car tire treads in a parking lot at Gallatin High School recently.

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After a week of being mask optional, Bozeman and Gallatin high schools will return to a mask requirement on Monday, following a significant spike in new cases reported in the last seven days across the Bozeman School District.

The district this week reported its highest number of new cases among staff and students in a seven-day period since the start of the pandemic, with 181 cases as of Thursday.

The second highest number of cases reported in a week occurred in early November with 58 cases.

In an email to district families and staff on Friday, interim Superintendent Casey Bertram said “the sudden and significant surge in Omicron transmission” has put a significant strain on adult capacity in the buildings.

Staff members who test positive for COVID-19 are required to isolate based on requirements from the Gallatin City-County Health Department

“Our adult capacity is stretched as well with known staffing shortages for substitute teachers and hourly employees …. To keep our doors open for in-person learning during the Omicron surge, masking at all grade bands will be required beginning Monday,” Bertram wrote.

In an email to district families on Dec. 17, Bertram announced his decision to remove the mask requirement for Bozeman and Gallatin high schools when students returned to school following winter break on Jan. 3, after steady declines in transmission at the two schools.

The return to a mask requirement at the high schools is one of four recommendations from Bozeman School District’s COVID-19 task force, which met Friday.

While the recommendation was not unanimous, it did receive 80% of support from the task force members, Bertram said.

On Thursday, Bertram let families know that the schools may not be communicating to families whether their child is a close contact, saying both the health department and school contact tracing teams were overwhelmed with new cases.

“We simply cannot ensure contact tracing occurs for all known cases. We will continue to provide school-based email updates alerting of new cases, but it is likely that full contact tracing for new cases will not occur,” Bertram said.

The task force backed up this decision in another recommendation to discontinue contact tracing, with student specific close contact emails and quarantine recommendations no longer being sent.

“We want to be very clear with families and staff that due to the sudden and exponential increase in positive COVID-19 cases we are seeing in our school settings with Omicron, you can likely consider yourself a close contact if you are attending our in-person schools at this time,” Bertram wrote in his Friday email.

Another recommendation from the task force was to move away from COVID-19 management to routine health management, after the omicron surge passes.

While COVID-19 has not yet become endemic, the task force discussed how following notification and contact tracing would come from the health department and masks could become optional in all buildings at a future date.

“The Task Force discussed that we are approaching a different stage of COVID-19 management now that all of our K-12 students and staff have access to a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine or natural immunity path,” Bertram wrote.

Bertram acknowledged that the district families were likely “weary, angry, and tired of managing COVID-19.” He asked that any concerns or frustrations be directed to him.

“Part of my job and role is fielding the stress and collective frustration from our community. Our dedicated teachers, administrators, nurses, paraprofessionals, custodial, classified and professional staff need your support, grace, positivity, and encouragement as we navigate the Omicron surge,” Bertram wrote.

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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