Schools throughout Northwest Montana will continue to enforce a mask mandate inside their buildings, despite Gov. Greg Gianforte’s decision to repeal a statewide directive on Friday.
The Northwest Montana Association of School Superintendents (NWMASS) met Thursday, one day after Gianforte signaled that he would repeal the mandate during a signing ceremony for a bill that provided liability protections for businesses and other entities from COVID-related lawsuits. At their meeting, NWMASS decided unanimously to continue to require masks in schools, and many districts sent out a similar letter to parents, staff and teachers Thursday evening announcing the move.
In his letter, Kalispell Public Schools Superintendent Micah Hill said the decision was made in collaboration with Flathead City-County Health Officer Joe Russell and the KPS school board. He laid out the district’s rationale in detail, trumpeting the district’s success so far in mitigating in-school spread of the virus, saying schools have “captive” audiences where social distancing is difficult to maintain, and reiterating that “student and staff safety continues to be our number one priority.”
Hill also noted Gianforte’s earlier decision to remove teachers from Tier 1B of the state’s vaccination distribution plan. Those in Tier 1B are currently receiving the vaccine in Flathead County, but last month Gianforte amended former Gov. Steve Bullock’s initial vaccine plan and moved teachers to Tier 1C. As such, teachers are ineligible to be vaccinated at this point in time and likely will not be eligible for several weeks or months.
“Removing the mask mandate when our school essential workers have not had the opportunity to be vaccinated presents additional risk to staff and students,” Hill wrote.
In an interview with the Beacon Friday, Hill said the fact that teachers and staff were not vaccinated presented a practical problem, too. Educators made their concerns well known last summer when the issue of school reopening was first being discussed, and many of them, including those with underlying health conditions or in other vulnerable populations, expressed fears about returning to the classroom, especially if masks were not mandated.
“In the absence of a mask mandate, I don’t know if our employees would come to work,” Hill said.
Kalispell’s first-year superintendent also acknowledged that the decision to require masks would be controversial, comparing it to kicking a hornet’s nest and anticipating it would reignite what had been a relatively dormant political battle. Hill had already received some less-than-friendly community feedback in the hours after making the announcement.
“I don’t think the polarization over the issue ever went away; it just kind of went underground for a while,” he said. “People just accepted it.”
Hill said the district consulted with its legal counsel before making the move and was assured that Montana law allowed for the decision to be made at the local level, although the district was also bracing for a potential legal challenge or legislation that could take local control away.
Flathead County health officials have identified little to no in-school spread of COVID-19 since the fall, with most school cases connected to outside gatherings or extracurricular activities. Some districts have had brief in-school learning interruptions due to staffing shortages caused by quarantines or confirmed positive cases, and many districts have also been offering remote instruction for those students who are uncomfortable attending in-person.
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