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Missoula County Public Schools reports most weekly COVID cases this school year

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In the first week back in school since holiday break, Missoula County Public Schools reported its highest number of new weekly COVID cases all school year.

The district posted 128 new cases of COVID among students and staff between Jan. 3 and Jan. 7. As of Monday afternoon, MCPS reported 96 active cases.

The previous high for new weekly cases was 94 during the week of Oct. 2 to Oct. 8. There have been a total 737 COVID cases in the district this school year.

"Unfortunately, we have seen a surge in new cases since the winter break. While we are hopeful this surge will be brief, we are encouraging anyone with symptoms of COVID-19 to remain at home and seek a COVID test," wrote MCPS in a message to families on Monday. 

Each school in the district reported at least two new cases last week, with the exception of Seeley-Swan High School, which reported no new cases and no active cases as of Monday.

Big Sky High School accounted for 21% of the cases reported last week. Ultimately, high school students made up 40% of new cases last week.

In the week ending Jan. 7, there were 243 people in the district who had been identified as close contacts. Of those, 112 were high school students, 54 were in middle school, 70 were elementary school students and seven were staff members.

Prior to the holiday season, COVID cases in the community and the district were on the decline and MCPS was making progress on several of its goals to lift the mask requirement.

In November, MCPS trustees approved a set of four conditions that would allow the district to lift its mask requirement — the COVID vaccine is available for children between the ages of 5-11 for at least eight weeks; the county incident rate for COVID is equal to or lower than 20 for 14 consecutive days; the number of close contacts in the district is equal to or lower than 125 for three out of four consecutive weeks; new district cases are less than or equal to 30 for three out of four consecutive weeks.

When all four of those triggers are met, the district will lift its mask requirement.

Before school was dismissed for the holidays on Dec. 17, the district had four full school weeks where it reported fewer than 30 cases among students and staff. Additionally, the incident rate in Missoula County was below 20 from Nov. 26 to Dec. 27. The district was below 125 close contacts for three consecutive weeks leading into the holiday break.

Despite being within range of three of the four goals prior to the holidays, the COVID vaccine had not yet been available for students between the ages of 5-11 for eight weeks. The vaccine was first available for that age range in Missoula County on Nov. 8.

On Monday, Missoula County reported 160 new cases bringing it to 1,397 active reports. The county’s incident rate is currently “red” at 118 cases per 100,000 people over the last week.

The highly contagious omicron variant of COVID first reared its head in Missoula County just before Christmas, and cases have been on the rise ever since.

Omicron is proving to be a nuisance for schools across the country, and even in Montana. When students returned to class at Great Falls Public Schools after the new year, the district decided to drop its mask requirement and within one week was forced to move to remote instruction.

“This morning information was shared with the district COVID-19 Task Force that the number of COVID-19 infected students and staff had skyrocketed over the weekend,” wrote the district in a news release announcing the closure on Monday afternoon.

The district had over 125 staff out on COVID-related illness as of Monday, and the substitute fill-rate was below 46%, meaning that over 50 classrooms were without a teacher. There are currently 185 COVID-positive individuals within the GFPS district as of Monday afternoon.

“That is the highest number of infections that we have experienced this year to date,” wrote the district in the release.

Schools in Great Falls will be closed Tuesday, Jan. 11 and the district plans to resume in-person instruction on Tuesday, Jan. 18.

Missoula County Public Schools has not experienced a district-wide closure due to COVID this school year, however the Jefferson Preschool Program was temporarily closed in late September due to COVID. 

Skylar Rispens' favorite stories from 2021

Although I've only been with the Missoulian since May, it was still challenging to narrow down my top five favorite stories from this year. In the end, I picked the five stories that connected me with the community. 

As the conditions of the pandemic ebb and flow, schools across the state have made progress to return to some semblance of normalcy. At Paxson Elementary that included the reintroduction of the foster grandparent program. The reporting experience was one of my first with local schools in Missoula and was a story idea I had rattling around in my head since before my time at the Missoulian. 

During the summer I had the opportunity to learn about edible plants in our own backyard that have medicinal purposes at a Traditional Ecological Knowledge Series at the Payne Family Native American Center. 

Before the school year kicked off I met a rad group of 24 women on a cross-country motorcycle trip to celebrate the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which granted white women the right to vote. They concluded their ride in Arlington, Virginia, for the Women's Motorcycle Festival and Conference. 

As the fall progressed I made contact with parents around western Montana that turned to privately homeschooling their children when their districts decided to do away with remote learning opportunities. After my reporting was published the Pleninger family was able to connect with the Missoula Online Academy through Missoula County Public Schools. 

Just before the end of the semester I met with the inaugural class of the University of Montana's brewing science certificate. It was so much fun getting to meet students from so many different corners of campus that were brought together by their interest in craft beer. 

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Missoula Aging Services foster grandparent program offers an extra set of hands for teachers to provide one-on-one support for students primarily in reading or math. 

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The intergenerational knowledge of edible plants held by Iko’tsimiskimaki “Ekoo” Beck can be traced back at least six generations.

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A group of 24 women packed their motorcycles, zipped up their jackets and revved their engines before heading out on day five of their three-week cross-country journey celebrating women's right to vote.

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