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

School Mask Mandates Remain Controversial As COVID Cases Surge

Children with face masks in a school classroom.
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Children with face masks in a school classroom.

Schools are reopening their doors amid spread of the coronavirus not seen since last winter. Yellowstone Public Radio’s Olivia Weitz and Montana Public Radio’s Aaron Bolton have been talking to school officials about what class is going to look like this fall and how staff and teachers are preparing.

AARON Olivia, let’s start with masks. This was a controversial topic last year; it’s still controversial now. How have you seen the debate play out over how students and staff should mask in the final days before school starts?

OLIVIA Several large school districts put in place mask requirements in recent days. Montana’s largest district in Billings put in place a mask mandate after an outbreak at a high school event. Teachers, their union and some parents are pushing back on that.

The Helena School District also put in place a mask mandate this week for pre-K through eighth grade. Masks are recommended for highschoolers there.

Masks are required to start the school year in Missoula, Butte and Bozeman.

Many of these decisions have been made in the recent days and weeks as we’re seeing a surge in COVID cases across the state.

AARON Yeah, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics say all students and staff should wear masks regardless of whether they are vaccinated, but it doesn’t sound like everyone is going with that advice.

I spoke with Lance Melton, head of the Montana School Boards Association. He says heading into the school year it’s a patchwork of masking rules in districts across the state, and transmission of the coronavirus in communities is changing fast.

“So it’s a fast-moving target and I think school districts are doing their best to make the best decisions possible given the uncertainty that’s going on right now,” Melton says.

While we’ve seen districts in places with a high number of COVID cases change to masking rules, not everyone is doing that.

Up in Flathead County, which has the highest number of cases statewide, Kalispell Public Schools Superintendent Micah Hill says masks are optional for students and that’s likely to remain the case.

“What I struggle with is requiring masks in schools for seven hours of the day, so one third of the day, knowing that these children are going to go home to families who potentially are not masking,” Hill says.

Hill says if the virus is racing through a classroom or a school, and enough kids and staff are out because they’re sick or on quarantine, the district may opt to close down classrooms or even entire schools until students and staff can return.

OLIVIA But there’s also districts that are implementing masking rules, saying that will keep kids in class, right?

AARON Yeah, I’ve heard from superintendents like Rob Watson in Missoula that say the recent case growth in Montana is partially why they’re choosing to implement a masking rule, but it’s also because the county health department is following CDC guidance that says in schools with universal masking, students within three feet will be considered close contacts, rather than six feet like last year.

“That was a pretty big game changer for us, because we knew that we would probably have less kids identified as close contacts if everyone’s wearing a mask,” Watson says.

AARON There are certainly those who support masking rules in schools, like in Missoula, but, Olivia, you’ve seen some pushback against masking, right?

OLIVIA So, sticking with Missoula, Michael Gehl is on the School Board of Trustees in Missoula.

“When you come out and tell me that I have to do something, I’m sorry, the first thing I’m going to say is ‘no.’ But you ask for my help, and you get an entirely different answer. And here we are, we’re mandating something here when we just got somewhat back to normal,” Gehl says.

OLIVIA Gehl made those comments during a meeting just over two weeks ago. Since then case numbers have continued to grow to some of the highest levels we’ve seen this year.

Gov. Greg Gianforte came out this week continuing to urge people to get vaccinated, talk to their doctors about it, but he said he will not make a statewide mask or vaccination mandate.

AARON I know Gianforte has called for districts to leave masking up to parents, but the state’s top education official has chimed in on this too, yeah?

OLIVIA Let’s jump back to the Billings decision over the weekend to put in place a mask mandate.

Montana Office of Public Instruction Superintendent Elsie Arntzen joined the protest calling for Billings superintendent Greg Upham’s recall if he doesn’t remove the mandate by Friday.

Here’s some audio from Q2 News’ coverage of the protest.

Arntzen: “So when school doors shut because you’re not wearing a face covering or medical device or a mask, is that equality in education?”

Crowd: “No!”

OLIVIA Since classes began there on Monday, the AP reported that several teachers have been placed on leave of absence due to noncompliance with the mask policy.

AARON We’ve been talking a lot about larger school districts, but what do mask rules look like in rural areas of the state?

OLIVIA I spoke with Executive Director of the Montana Rural Education Association Dennis Parman about this, and he says masking mandates in rural districts are largely absent. He says last year was hard on parents, and many of them wanted to start the school year this year without masks.

“There was a lot of pandemic fatigue, I think, and there is a lot of excitement around schools opening in the fall and I think they wanted to be able to try and recapture that,” Parman says.

OLIVIA Parman also said that rural school districts are less likely to have remote learning options in place.

AARON In larger districts I’ve seen some offer remote learning options for students. And we’ve seen both rural and urban schools hire additional staff with pandemic relief money to help manage some of the online learning when students and staff are sick.

Olivia, what are you hearing from parents about the choices their districts are making?

OLIVIA That really depends on which parents you talk to. We’ve seen protests outside of school board meetings pushing back against masks.

But others see face coverings as a way to protect their kids who aren’t yet eligible for a vaccine. Terrence Gotz from Bozeman spoke during a school board meeting earlier this month.

“Masks can allow kids who have underlying conditions and their parents to send them to school feeling somewhat confident that their neighbors are looking over their shoulder for their children just as much as we are for theirs,” Gotz said.

OLIVIA There are more issues at play this fall than just masking rules. Aaron, you’ve reported that a new state law could put districts out of step with federal health guidelines. What’s happening there?

AARON Yeah, House Bill 702 says businesses, employers and governmental entities can’t treat people differently based on their vaccination status. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says when someone is a close contact to a COVID-19 case, the response should be different if that person is vaccinated or unvaccinated.

OLIVIA How so?

AARON The CDC says if you’re vaccinated and are a close contact you don’t need to quarantine, you just need to get tested and wear a mask for two weeks. On the other hand, the CDC says unvaccinated people should quarantine.

But under HB702, many think it forces health officials to quarantine everyone or no one, so an all-or-none approach. Some counties are dropping quarantine mandates and are suggesting that people follow CDC guidance, saying this is some kind of middle ground that doesn’t punish vaccinated people.

Missoula has said it’s going to follow CDC guidelines, in possible violation of the law. Other counties are still figuring out how to navigate this situation. Some school districts worry their health departments will quarantine everyone, eliminating the advantage vaccines could provide this year. Speaking of shots, for kids 12 and up that can get a COVID vaccine, Olivia, what has uptake been looking like as we approach school?

OLIVIA So as the school year starts, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services says that, statewide, 32% of children age 12 to 17 have received at least one dose as of Aug. 15. This age range is the least vaccinated age group that is eligible for a shot.

There’s not yet a clear timeline for when shots could be available for kids under 12.

AARON Olivia, thanks for your reporting.

OLIVIA Thanks, you too.

Olivia Weitz
Aaron Bolton is Montana Public Radio's Flathead Valley reporter.