Montana Public Radio

Montana Schools Chief Blasts Governor Over Mask Requirement

Aug 13, 2020

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The ongoing dispute between Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and the state’s schools chief deepened Thursday when Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen blasted Bullock for announcing a school mask requirement without consulting her.

Arntzen is a Republican running for reelection in November, while Bullock, a Democrat, is running for U.S. Senate.

“The governor made a last-minute decision days before school begins and has once again left the Office of Public Instruction in the dark in his decision-making related to safely reopening schools,” Arntzen said in a statement on Wednesday.

Elsie Arntzen is Montana's superintendent of public instruction.
Credit Montana Legislature

However, the governor's office maintains that it has included the superintendent in decision-making through weekly discussions with her and her staff.

Marissa Perry, a spokesperson for the governor, said that when consulted, Arntzen refused to give guidance on mask usage in schools.

“It seems the superintendent is more interested in getting headlines than working together to get Montana kids back to school safely,” Perry said in an email.

The superintendent said she found out about the decision to extend the state's mask mandate to schools nine minutes before the governor announced the decision during a live-streamed news conference on Wednesday. She said that in two phone calls held with the governor’s staff earlier this week, a possible mask mandate was not mentioned.

Bullock said on Wednesday that he would extend his July 15 mask mandate to all public and private schools in counties where there are four or more active cases of COVID-19. As of Thursday, the order would apply to 25 of the state’s 56 counties.

Bullock said that while school district and school board sometimes have “competing viewpoints,” encouraging mask wearing may not be enough to stop the spread of the virus.

“For those strongly encouraging wearing a mask or face coverings in their buildings, I do fear that that won’t be enough to keep those teachers and students safe. Every other public and government building requires face coverings, and there’s no principal reason why the same shouldn’t be the case in our schools,” he said.

In an interview on Thursday, Arntzen countered that she supports allowing school districts to make decisions at the local level.

“A one-size-fits-all does not work,” she said.

On July 31, Bullock’s chief of staff, Ali Bovingdon, wrote to Arntzen regarding a potential mask mandate. Bovingdon noted that the Centers for Disease Control recommend universal masking in schools.

“Is it your position that teachers, staff and students can safely return to school if local districts disregard the guidance from the President and the CDC and do not require masks or face shields be worn?” Bovingdon wrote.

Arntzen called the letter “snarky” and said it did not clarify whether a mask mandate would be left up to local authorities.

The skirmish is the latest in a feud that began when Arntzen released a school reopening plan on the same day as Bullock released his plan. The plans, both released July 2, were not coordinated.

Later in July, the superintendent said she was not consulted about Bullock's decision to allocate $75 million in coronavirus relief funds to schools to implement COVID-19 precautions.

She released an op-ed July 28 accusing the governor of excluding the Office of Public Instruction from meetings of the state’s coronavirus task force.

Arntzen accused Bullock of playing politics in his coronavirus response. Bullock endorsed Arntzen's Democratic opponent, Melissa Romano, last month.

“He is putting politics into a pandemic,” she said. “I don’t know if he can close the door of that politics that has seeped into the discussion on reopening schools.”

Iris Samuels is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative.

This story has been corrected to fix the spelling of Marissa and Arntzen on one reference, It also restores the dropped word NOT to say Artnzen stated the letter from the governor’s office did not clarify whether a mask mandate would be left up to local authorities.