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

Governor Issues Emergency Rule On School Mask Exemptions

Close-up of Asian female teacher wearing a face mask in school building tutoring a primary student girl. Elementary pupil is writing and learning in classroom. Covid-19 school reopen concept
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Stock photo of a teacher wearing a mask in the classroom.

Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office Tuesday announced a new emergency rule telling public school districts they should consider input from parents and provide exemptions when it comes to mask mandates. Public health experts say the rule undermines measures to keep kids safe in schools.

The emergency administrative rule issued by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services says school districts should be able to demonstrate that they took into account parental concerns over mask mandates in schools and provide parents with the opportunity to opt out.

“The [DPHHS] rule says honor the open-meeting laws, essentially,” says Lance Melton with the Montana School Boards Association.

Melton says that last year districts across the state adopted a School Board Association model policy outlining how they would take public comment on and make exceptions to COVID-19 policies — like masking rules — in line with pre-existing requirements under state and federal law.

He says this new rule won’t change anything in terms of districts’ ability to implement masking rules, and says parents already had the ability to weigh in at school board meetings.

Missoula County Public Schools Superintendent Rob Watson agrees. He says the district's mask mandate will be enforced.

“We will still make every effort to accommodate medical concerns and we’ve already done so in certain cases.”

The Gianforte administration claims the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation on masking in schools is “based on inconclusive research” and masking could have adverse effects on children's well-being.

State Superintendent Elsie Arntzen issued a press release supporting Gov. Gianforte, saying the DPHHS rule reinforced parents rights.

The emergency rule from the state health department comes as Montana faces a surge in new COVID cases not seen since last winter. Montana added 890 new cases Tuesday, the highest number of new cases added in a single day in 2021.

Health experts across Montana, including the Montana Medical Association, Montana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Montana Association of Pediatric Psychiatrists, Montana Primary Care Association, and Montana Nurses Association pushed back against the Gianforte administration's emergency rule, saying in a joint statement that the rule undermines “an effective, proven public health measure to keep our kids in school and our emergency rooms open.”

Curtis Noonan is the Director of the Center for Population Health Research at the University of Montana’s School of Public and Community Health Sciences. He says the main study the Gianforte administration points to to back up its claims of “inconclusive research” for masking in schools was taken out of context.

The Gianforte administration correctly points out the study’s findings that universal masking in schools reduced COVID-19 cases by roughly 20 percent were statistically insignificant. However Noonan explains that’s largely because researchers were looking at schools that were implementing a wide-variety of COVID-19 protocols, making it hard to tease out the efficacy of masks specifically.

“They weren’t comparing schools that had mask requirements to schools that were not doing anything. That would not have been an ethical study to do.”

Noonan says the scientific literature overall shows universal masking to be effective in reducing the ability of a COVID-postive person to infect others.