Great Falls schools go remote due to virus surge

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

GREAT FALLS (AP) — Great Falls Public Schools is switching to remote learning for a week due to a surge in COVID-19 cases among students and staff, the district said Monday, while the Blackfeet Indian Tribe reinstated its mask mandate in public places and is banning most in-person gatherings due to increased cases on the reservation just east of Glacier National Park.

In Great Falls, more than 125 staff are out due to COVID-19-related illness, and the total number of students and staff who tested positive for COVID-19 was 185, school officials said.

There were 55 classrooms throughout the district without substitute teachers on Monday, the district said.

Due to the increased transmission rates, the district’s COVID-19 Task Force recommended that all public schools in Great Falls be temporarily closed starting Tuesday.

“We will continue to monitor infection rates and hopefully, resume regular classes,” on Jan. 18, the school district said in a statement.

“This temporary closure will allow adequate time for staff to recover and return to work. In addition, the closure will reduce the rate of spreading infections.”

The district has just over 10,000 students, school officials said.

Due to staffing shortages, C.M. Russell High School postponed its boys’ basketball games against Billings Skyview that had been scheduled for Monday.

Great Falls schools had announced on Dec. 21 that they would lift a face covering requirement when classes resumed on Jan. 3, after the holiday break.

In Browning, Blackfeet tribal offices will be closed to the public with a small number of staff available. Residents are asked to stay at their primary place of residence, and only essential travel is recommended — such as going to the grocery store or seeking medical care or prescriptions.

The recommendations include not holding in-person gatherings, such as weddings and birthday parties, and spectators will not be allowed at sporting events, the tribe’s COVID-19 incident commander K. Webb Galbreath said Monday.

The reservation also has a curfew from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. while under the restrictions, which will last at least until Jan. 25, he said.

The tribe also recommends people not “engage in risky outdoor recreation that may strain the healthcare or emergency response systems further.”

An increase in COVID-19 cases in Montana is believed to be driven by the more contagious omicron variant of COVID-19. The omicron variant spreads even more easily than other coronavirus strains, and has already become dominant in many countries. It also more easily infects those who have been vaccinated or had previously been infected by prior versions of the virus. However, early studies show omicron is less likely to cause severe illness than the previous delta variant, and vaccination and a booster still offer strong protection from serious illness, hospitalization and death.

Montana reported 1,939 new cases of COVID-19 from testing done over the weekend, second only to the 2,227 cases reported on Oct. 12 — after the Columbus Day weekend. The next day, Oct. 13, Montana reported a pandemic high of 510 people hospitalized with COVID-19.

Montana had 154 people hospitalized with COVID-19 on Sunday, the health department said.