HELENA — Helena Public Schools leaders have said from the start of this year that COVID data will play a key role in their decisions on whether to add or remove measures like mask mandates. As the COVID situation has evolved, so has the information they’re looking at.
The district says, early on in the pandemic, many COVID cases were identified by school nurses or in their regular drive-through testing. Now, more families are using at-home tests, which could be skewing their data.
“We’re seeing that our case numbers don’t as closely reflect actual cases, because we aren’t seeing those results unless the family chooses to self-report,” said Karen Ogden, the district’s communications officer.
The Helena Public Schools website now includes the percentage of absences at each district school. On Thursday, Feb. 10, an average of 9% of students were absent across the district. Numbers varied from 5% at Jefferson Elementary to 13% at Rossiter Elementary.
“We want to give parents another tool, especially those who may have children who are immunocompromised, to make decisions,” Ogden said.
In his weekly letter to families last Friday, Superintendent Rex Weltz said case numbers remained high enough to be of concern, but he was hopeful they’d improve enough this week that they could take another look at mask requirements. Since then, the active cases in Lewis and Clark County have fallen significantly, reaching 176 on Thursday.
Weltz could announce a decision on mask policy this Friday.
The district had temporarily suspended their drive-through COVID testing because of a lack of testing supplies, but those supplies are now available again, and they resumed testing this week. The tests are happening from 4 to 7 p.m., Monday through Thursday. They are open to district students and employees, along with their immediate household members. You can find out how to schedule an appointment here.
“We’re really appreciative of the caution that families are taking to keep our schools safe,” said Ogden.