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The latest news about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 in Montana.

Montana Schools Superintendent Says Masks Should Be Personal Choice

School hallway showing students walking through in a blur.

Montana school officials are grappling with new mask guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as COVID-19 cases rise ahead of the first day of classes. The state’s superintendent of public instruction is advocating for personal choice while public health experts push for mandates.

The CDC is once again recommending that people wear masks in crowded indoor spaces in places with significant spread of the virus. That guidance extends to staff and students at schools, even if they’re vaccinated.

According to the state health department, 27% of Montanans aged 12-17 have gotten at least one dose of a vaccine as of July 23.

Dr. John Cole, a pediatrician in Kalispell and president of the Montana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, says masking at schools is a good call because kids younger than 12 aren’t yet eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine, but can still get sick.

“We see cases of kids with inflammation around the heart. We see long-term loss of taste and smell, fatigue. So if we can avoid children and staff from getting COVID, that is always the number one goal, and that’s why the masking is so important,” Cole says.

The new CDC guidance comes just a month before the start of the school year. COVID-19 cases are on the rise in parts of the state, and health officials are concerned about low vaccination rates among teens who will soon return to high schools.

Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen told MTPR in a statement that masking should be a personal choice. She said OPI has heard of “negative impacts” associated with masks in school settings and hopes that students and staff can return to normal.

Lance Melton, director of the Montana School Boards Association, says rural, sparsely populated districts might not need masking in schools. But if other schools do put in place a mask mandate, it could end up in court.

“A school board could, in theory, say you can’t be in the school unless you’re willing to wear a mask and properly wear it, in which case the courts would likely review that as whether it unduly interferes in a student’s right of access to the curriculum,” Melton says.

Melton says administrators will be weighing this decision over the next month.

Melton says school districts' options are restricted by two laws passed during the last legislative session. One requires that elected officials have a say in public health mandates and another bars schools from taking vaccine status into consideration when drafting rules.

Cole, the pediatrician, says mandates are necessary.

“With public health measures, we can’t just half-do it. So it’s an all or none type of situation,” Cole says.

Cole urges anyone with concerns about masks or the COVID-19 vaccine to talk to their health care provider.

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