An unfamiliar sight will greet teachers and students at Missoula County Public Schools on Monday; smiling faces.

Superintendent Rob Watson made the surprise announcement on Friday afternoon, after receiving new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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“As of Monday we're moving from our requiring mask policy to where they are recommended and optional for students and staff, based on CDC guidance that came out today,” said Dr. Watson.

Watson said the CDC announcement caught school officials a bit off guard with Missoula fitting into a new COVID classification.

“At one o'clock today the CDC came out with some new guidance on how they categorized communities,” he said. “They base their metrics not only on case counts, but also hospitalizations and some other factors. But the long and the short of it is they reclassified Missoula County as medium risk rather than high risk, and that was the determining factor. They basically said any county that's in a medium risk category was not required to have masks indoors, so that that was a real trigger factor that changed it for us.”

Watson said it was a shock to see the CDC recommendation, but he immediately made the announcement pertaining to masks on Monday.

“I think all of us are still a little bit shocked that things changed that quickly,” he said. I mean, I know the CDC had been talking about changing their numbers but it all came out at one o'clock today and we had to react pretty quickly and make some decisions before 4:00 p.m. and I think everyone was just kind of feeling a little bit shocked to see things change that quickly. But you know, that's been the nature of the pandemic is that things kind of change overnight it seems, so I guess we're kind of getting used to that.”

Watson acknowledged that some parents and students may still feel more protected by wearing masks at school.

“Of course they'll probably still be some kids that feel more comfortable wearing masks because COVID is still in our community, which is fine,” he said. “We want to be clear with our parents as well that it's not necessary that they don't have to go without masks. They can still wear them if they want to, but there'll be a lot of kids I'm sure that will be glad that they don't have to.”

As far as other COVID policies such as children not being allowed to access their lockers, Watson said MCPS is taking the reduction of COVID protections one at a time, and they will all be reviewed as the remaining weeks of school roll on. But, Watson said he is looking forward to seeing smiling faces starting Monday.

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