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Missoula County Public Schools bracing for impact amid most recent COVID surge

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Missoula County Public Schools has reported 132 new COVID cases among students and staff just three days into the school week and has already topped its previous record of new weekly cases.

Amid the highest surge in COVID cases the district has seen all year and changing quarantine guidance from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, the district has started sending alerts via email to parents and guardians to inform them of positive cases in their classroom or school.

“Due to the current high volume of cases, we are not able to do individual contact tracing at the schools to know your particular student’s exposure risk,” wrote the district in an email to a parent that was shared with the Missoulian.

However, this does not mean the district is ceasing its contact tracing efforts, Superintendent of MCPS Rob Watson said on Wednesday.

The CDC shortened their quarantine guidance for COVID-positive individuals over the holiday break from 10 days to five days if the individual is not experiencing symptoms. The CDC still recommends that people consistently wear masks for five days following their isolation.

“The impact that’s had is pretty dramatic on our contact tracing,” Watson said.

Prior to the change in guidance, the district would identify close contacts of the COVID positive individual and notify them. The district is normally able to complete that process within three to four days of a positive case, Watson said.

“So with the high volume of cases that we got after the start of the year, coupled with that change in the CDC guidance, we were contacting some cases after their quarantine was already over,” Watson said.

As a result, the district has broadened the exposure notification for every student in a classroom that reports a positive case.

“Out of an abundance of caution, we wanted to inform you of this exposure and ask that you take your student’s temperature and monitor for symptoms daily,” the district wrote in the letter to parents.

The letter includes information on how to notify the district if a student tests positive and shares resources on how to access COVID testing, but notes that testing sites are experiencing high demand right now and it may take 24-48 hours to receive a test.

The demand for COVID tests is so high that the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services notified school districts across the state that its warehouse of the Binax Now testing kits is out of stock.

In an email regarding the state’s stockpile, the DPHHS says that it has two orders placed to receive more, “but due to the high demand for testing supplies nationally,” they are currently back-ordered. The health department still encouraged districts to continue ordering testing supplies in the meantime.

The state health department supplies rapid COVID tests to many school districts around Montana, including MCPS.

“We have enough here to last us a few more weeks, but we will have to be cautious with those. We probably will have to limit those to people that are showing symptoms,” Watson said. “But having said that, we’ve reached out to some community partners to try and track down some more.

“So I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to track down more tests locally,” Watson said.

As cases continue to climb in school districts across the state, some districts are preparing the framework for a temporary district-wide transition to remote instruction, while others have buckled due to staffing shortages. Earlier this week, Great Falls Public Schools announced it would be temporarily moving to online instruction for at least a week.

New COVID cases at MCPS this week are already outpacing what was reported last week, and on both Friday and Monday the district had a record number of staff absent, Watson said.

“It’s not good,” he added.

“Our buildings are doing the best they can to manage that but it’s not great. I referred to them kind of operating on a skeleton crew and getting teachers to fill in for other teachers during prep periods,” Watson continued later. “That’s never ideal, but that’s kind of what we have to do to Band-Aid everything to keep it together.”

Watson said approximately 140 staff, including teachers, custodians and food service workers, were out on Monday.

When asked if the district may be reaching a tipping point with staff that could result in a temporary district-wide closure, Watson indicated that some buildings may be headed in that direction.

“I would say not every building is in that bad of shape. We’ve got some schools where there may only be a handful of students that are positive and a few staff members that are out, so it’s a difficult decision to make for the entire district,” Watson said. “But you may see some closures at certain buildings that we’re preparing for as well.”

Watson did not specify which buildings may find themselves in that position, but said it is not specific to a certain grade band, such as elementary, middle or high schools.

Of the 132 new COVID cases reported so far this week, nearly 45% of the cases have been with high school students and staff. Sentinel High School has reported 33 new cases so far this week.

About 31% of the cases this week have been at middle schools and the remaining 24% of cases have been with the elementary schools.

“It’s kind of all over … what we’re seeing right now is more high school than any other level, which is new, but it could quickly shift,” Watson said.

“We want to let (parents) know that our staffing situation is not good and that we could be faced with some closures and we’ll try to let them know as soon as we can,” he continued.

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