The Bigfork School District Board of Trustees voted to end a district-wide mask mandate effective March 15, a move made against the advice of the district’s superintendent and all three of the district’s principals.
District 38 Superintendent Matt Jensen, who also serves as the president of the Northwest Montana Association of School Superintendents (NWMASS), joined his colleagues throughout the region in maintaining a requirement that masks be worn inside school buildings last week, just before Gov. Greg Gianforte repealed a statewide directive. At an NWMASS meeting on Feb. 11, the group unanimously agreed and most superintendents issued similar statements to their school communities that night.
But Bigfork’s school board took up the issue at an emergency meeting on Wednesday night and voted 4-3 to make mask wearing optional in all of the district’s schools. The politically charged vote came after 12 members of a 13-person COVID-19 task force — made up of the superintendent, three principals and the district nurse, along with parents, teachers and two trustees — recommended the board keep the mask mandate in place.
“My rationale for continuing to require masks inside our school buildings was trusting the recommendations that were being made by people with a lot more expertise in public health than I have personally,” Julie Kreiman, one of the trustees who voted to keep the mask mandate, said. “I wanted to send a clear message to our incredible Bigfork staff that I value their safety and well-being, and the safety and well-being of their immediate families that they live with.”
Bigfork is the first, and so far only, high school district in the Flathead Valley to lift its mask requirement.
Flathead City-County Health Officer Joe Russell consulted with NWMASS on the decision to maintain mask mandates and sent out a letter to superintendents throughout the county urging them to continue requiring masks earlier this week.
“It is with strong conviction that I state that existing mask use policies remain in effect in all schools in Flathead County,” Russell wrote.
But Russell’s letter was not a formal directive, and both he and the Flathead City-County Board of Health declined to discuss any official measure at the board’s monthly meeting on Thursday. In an interview with the Beacon, Russell said he would like to discuss masking, particularly in schools, with the board’s COVID-19 subcommittee but also cautioned that the bitter disagreements that have infiltrated public health discussions around masking mean issuing any kind of directive could ignite a political powder keg.
“The public health system’s important enough to keep together,” Russell said. “I don’t want it to be torn apart.”
The divisions over masking were on full display during the public comment portion of the board of health meeting, with a handful of community members who appeared unmasked and in person passionately voicing support for removing masks in schools. Other commenters, all of whom appeared remotely, begged the health board to take action. Rebecca Miller asked the nine-member board to specifically address the school decision made in Bigfork.
“We are in a situation where we need you as a health board to act,” Miller said. “Responsibility has been abdicated by other authorities to keep our schools safe. We need you to step in and issue a countywide mask mandate.”
Jessica Martinz, one of the three Bigfork trustees who voted to keep the mask mandate, also expressed frustration that the decision on masks was left to the board. Former Gov. Steve Bullock imposed a statewide mask requirement in schools before the start of the 2020-21 school year but Gianforte’s directive last week also rolled back that requirement.
“We were all just doing our best to make a decision that should have never been placed on local school boards,” Martinz wrote in an email. “Public health decisions should not be made at this level.”
Gianforte’s executive order lifting the mask mandate allowed counties and municipalities the authority to enact their own restrictions, and several of the state’s largest counties have done just that. Whitefish voted earlier this year to enact a citywide mask ordinance that went into effect immediately once the statewide order was lifted. Flathead County has no COVID-19 related restrictions in place.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continue to recommend that Americans wear masks when indoors or around people you do not live with. Many schools around the country are only now beginning to reopen for in-school instruction and the CDC put out guidelines for how to safely do so last week, saying “universal and correct use of masks should be required” at schools, along with other mitigation measures.
Safety, though, was not the only factor cited by Bigfork administrators in recommending that the mask mandate continue. There are practical concerns as well. Since Wednesday’s decision represents a change in working conditions for the district’s unionized employees, any employee with an underlying health condition who requests a new working environment must be accommodated. It is expected that a number of employees will do just that, leading to a shortage of in-school teachers and further stressing a system already beset by a dearth of available substitutes. That could, in turn, force a return to hybrid or even fully remote learning in Bigfork, particularly at the high school and middle school levels.
In a survey of 96 district staff members, the results of which were revealed at Wednesday’s board meeting, 74% said they believed the current mask mandate was limiting the spread of COVID-19 in Bigfork schools and 18% said they would request an accommodation to work from home if the mandate was lifted. Only 4% of staff members said they would terminate their employment if masks were made optional but a significantly larger number (27.1%) said their comfort level returning to in-school learning without a mandate was a 1 on a 1-to-10 scale.
Kreiman said one person, whom she declined to identify but described as a “vital staff member,” had already submitted a letter of resignation directly related to the Wednesday night vote and added, “I suspect there will be more.”
More than 300 district parents, meanwhile, responded differently to a similar survey. Sixty-two percent were opposed to keeping a mask mandate in place and 49% were even opposed to extending the mandate until those with underlying health conditions could be vaccinated. However, 74% of parents said they would prefer full day, in-school learning with a mask mandate to a “partial on-site hybrid schedule.”
Part of the rationale used by NWMASS and Russell in recommending in-school masking was another decision by Gianforte that moved teachers from Tier 1B to Tier 1C in the state’s vaccine distribution plan. The county is currently vaccinating those in Tier 1B and Russell said Thursday that he expects the county would likely not be ready to move to 1C until April.
“This vote simply wasn’t about masks or no masks,” Trustee Christina Relyea wrote in a statement to the Beacon. “This vote was about removing working conditions that allowed us to keep our employees and our kids on-site for a traditional learning experience. It was working. We’ve had kids and teachers in the classrooms since the beginning of the school year.”
Zack Anderson, one of the four trustees who voted to lift the mask mandate, called the subject “divisive and polarizing” in an email to the Beacon and provided the results of the staff and parent survey, but declined to expand further.
Jensen, the Bigfork superintendent, and other members of the board of trustees did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
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