Gov. Steve Bullock announced today that face coverings will be required at K-12 schools in counties with four or more active COVID-19 cases, providing an answer to a question that Montana school districts have been grappling with for weeks, with most already having crafted policies.
The governor’s announcement came a day after the Kalispell public school board unanimously approved its own face-covering requirement, and was yet another example of the rapidly shifting guidance confounding districts as they prepare to reopen in the fall.
Bullock’s school announcement is an extension of his July 15 directive requiring face coverings in businesses, government offices and other indoor venues that are open to the public, as well as some outdoor settings.
The new school directive “extends the mandatory use of face coverings to all public and private school settings in counties with four or more active COVID-19 cases.” The mandate applies to both schools’ indoor spaces and organized outdoor activities.
The guidelines of the July 15 directive apply to the school mandate, including organized outdoor activities defined as gatherings of 50 or more people and exceptions for “persons engaged in an activity that makes wearing a face covering impractical or unsafe, such as strenuous physical exercise or swimming,” according to the governor’s office.
Bullock said during an Aug. 12 press conference that the directive is a necessary step to ensure the safety of students and staff and that schools can remain open.
“Our schools are more likely to be successful if they require face coverings,” the Democratic governor said. “Every other public and government building requires face coverings and there’s no principled reason why the same shouldn’t be the case in our schools.”
Kalispell’s own updated face-covering language, approved at a lengthy Aug. 11 school board meeting, requires all K-12 students, staff and visitors to wear masks in buildings and on buses, and in other settings when physical distancing isn’t possible.
It wasn’t immediately clear how or if Bullock’s order impacted Kalispell’s policy.
Kalispell Superintendent of Schools Micah Hill said well over 100 people commented at the board meeting, either in-person or virtually, and all were in favor of the mask requirement, although he’s received emails and other comments against it.
Hill was the featured speaker at an Aug. 12 virtual meeting hosted by the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce. He gave an overview of the district’s reopening plan and policies, while answering questions from the public, many of which concerned face coverings.
Hill encouraged parents to begin having their kids practice wearing face coverings before the school year begins. The policy will adhere to the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Hill said guidance will allow for a student or staff member to receive an exemption with a doctor’s note, although medical professionals, including pediatricians, have told him “it would be very, very rare that someone would be exempt.”
In response to a question during the chamber of commerce Q&A regarding whether a student who doesn’t wear a mask would be sent home, Hill said the district’s emphasis is on safety and health through education and communication, not punitive measures.
“I’m not going to send a kindergartener home for taking their face mask off,” he said. “That’s not realistic. That’s not what this is about.”
Hill acknowledged that it’s difficult for anybody, adults or children, to wear face coverings for extended periods of time, and said the district is exploring options such as carving out spaces in classrooms where a kid could be physically distant while briefly removing their face covering or having intermittent outdoor sessions for students to safely take off their masks.
“We need to take this new thing in our lives,” Hill said, “and make it a teachable moment and recognize it’s a struggle.”