Helena Public Schools Superintendent Rex Weltz on Friday asked families and staff to “please wear a mask for the next few weeks” in order to keep schools open through the surge of the omicron variant.
However, he said he is is not mandating mask use at this time.
“Omicron is now upon us,” he said in a late afternoon email. “And while it is different from previous variants, it’s far more contagious and every bit as disruptive. How we fare as a community will depend on how well we work together to keep our schools open, keep parents at work, keep businesses open and – most critically – keep hospitals and clinics open for those who need care.”
Helena Public Schools has reported 244 cases of COVID-19 in the past two weeks. Lewis and Clark County reported its first known omicron cases on Jan. 3, and local health officials have advised that the next two weeks will be pivotal, Weltz said.
He said the district's nursing staff will no longer do contact tracing, adding it is no longer realistic or a good use of resources to chase COVID.
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“The new variant simply moves too fast,” Weltz said. “Here again, the emphasis is on prevention and using the tools available to protect yourself, your family, and the community.”
He said a return to mask-required status remains a strong possibility.
"However, I view mask mandates as a last resort,” Weltz said. “I strongly believe we’ll be most successful if we work together, voluntarily, to keep schools open because that's what we all want.”
Weltz said the highly infectious nature of omicron, coupled with the shortage of rapid testing supplies, "makes masking essential to keep schools open through the surge.”
He said omicron is expected to drop off more quickly than its predecessors.
“This is a short-term ask to help us avoid the crises of closed schools and overcrowded hospitals happening elsewhere. Please send your student to school with a mask. Three-layer cloth masks and paper masks are available at your school, if needed,” he said.
Weltz urged people to get vaccinated and to stay home if sick in order to keep schools, businesses, and health care facilities open.
He also urged people to become a substitute teacher or para educator to help fill staffing needs throughout the district.
Those who can help should call Jacqueline Young at the district’s human resources at (406) 324-2011 or go to the Human Resources page on the district website.
"Let’s all pull on the same rope and do everything we can for each other, for our schools, and for our community," Weltz said.