It has been 160 days since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Montana. Schools were one of the first entities to act after March's initial wave of positives, shutting down the following week and moving to remote learning the rest of the year. Next week, Billings School District 2 will welcome back more than 14,000 students in a world filled with new protocols.
"I think the biggest challenge is trying to address all the individual risk factors that we kind of associate with the transmission of SARS CoV-2," also known as COVID-19, said Dr. Neil Ku, Billings Clinic's leading infectious disease specialist.
Here are the big three steps right now:
1) Everyone inside the building, kids and adults, will be required to wear masks.
2) Classrooms and common areas will be sanitized in between periods.
3) New block scheduling will be put in place to try and reduce interaction with an infected student, who often are harder to identify than staff.
"Because the symptoms typically tend to be milder in children, they're not recognized as readily as a concern to parents," Ku said.
Thus, many kids are only tested when symptoms become more severe, which has led to a much higher percentage of Montana's cases than the national average.
"In the U.S., children below the age of 19 make up about 2% of the total number of cases of COVID-19," Ku said. "In Montana, that number comprises 12.7% of total cases, which have been reported here."
Ku says the numbers are skewed because more asymptomatic adults get tested and come back negative. However, he admits kids tend to present more transmission problems, especially when grouped together.
"By far the biggest challenge that everyone is experiencing is trying to go against all our instincts and drive to be very social - socially interact with people we are very close to," Ku explained. "That's certainly here in the hospital. We understand the implications of what happens when someone gets COVID-19. Without seeing that, it doesn't hit home to them to understand why these measures should be followed closely."
While most haven't seen a positive case in person yet, they likely will. Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton said Monday it would be naive to think numbers won't rise after schools re-open, but Ku says the number one key to mitigating an outbreak is masks.
"The reason it's such a big deal is not to protect us, it's really primarily focused on those who are infected and don't know it who would affect others," Ku said. "If everyone is wearing a mask and it happens to be that a student or staff member get sick, that will decrease substantially the risk of transmitting SARS CoV-2."
In the end, the question of whether or not schools should re-open comes down to this.
"Certainly there is no 'safe,'" Ku admitted, "but we can make things safer."