At the end of a lengthy Kalispell Public Schools board meeting on Feb. 24, which included a presentation by Superintendent Micah Hill, two hours of in-person public comment and an additional hour of reviewing written submitted comment, the board voted unanimously 11-0 in favor of retaining a mandatory mask mandate.
Roughly 150 community members attended the meeting, held in the auditorium at Flathead High School, as the school board considered whether to continue its requirement of face coverings for students, teachers and staff in School District 5.
Multiple times during public comment, members of the audience laughed at students giving testimony about their fear of attending school without a mask requirement.
“This is a reality I, my peers, and the teachers in this room have to deal with, the fact that we are living in the midst of a global pandemic that, yes, is still happening,” said Scout McMahon, a junior at Flathead High. “We are still coming to school and risking our lives every day.”
Flathead Junior Class President Emily Hove agreed, and also was laughed at by members of the audience.
“To ask us to come to school without a mask mandate is to ask us to risk our very lives,” she said. “Please consider what the students have to say.”
All but two students who gave comment, which included elementary-aged kids and students at both KPS high schools, spoke in favor of continuing the masking policy.
One student in opposition promised to canvass door to door in the next election in order to defeat any school board member who voted in favor of the mask mandate.
In-person public comment was split roughly in half between those in favor of the mask mandate and those in opposition, made up of many parents who relayed concerns about the effect of masks on children’s mental health and hygiene — as well as several who decried the mandate as unconstitutional and tantamount to child abuse. The supporters were overwhelmingly composed of students, teachers and members of the medical community.
One parent who spoke against the mask mandate asked the board to consider the sensibility of requiring students to wear masks in the classroom, but remove them during lunch or for class photos. The few educators who were opposed to mandatory face coverings specifically highlighted hygiene issues if masks are not regularly cleaned and hand washing is not emphasized to the same degree.
But the written comments were overwhelmingly in support of the mandate. After the in-person public comment period was up, the board recessed to read 637 written public comments before reconvening for the final vote. Of the written comments, 526 were in favor of the mandate and 111 were in opposition.
Hill, the superintendent, began the meeting with a presentation outlining the timeline of COVID-19 policies that the board implemented starting nearly a year ago.
School District 5 required face coverings to be worn in buildings when the school year began in August. So far, no schools in the district have closed to in-person learning this year.
The Montana School Boards Association recommended all school boards revise their policies to highlight the school board’s authority to set local policy, as outlined in Gov. Greg Gianforte’s Feb. 12 directive repealing the statewide mandate.
Hill shared COVID-19 statistics from the district, showing that 17% of staff and roughly 6.5% of students have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, while 20% and 43% of staff and students, respectively, have been quarantined at some point.
Hill concluded his presentation by recommending that the school board adopt a version of the policy that would continue requiring face coverings in school. An alternate version would have made mask use optional.
Flathead County Health Officer Joe Russell briefly spoke, sharing his recommendation that all schools continue with their current policy.
“Social distancing is the best thing we can do — limited contact,” Russell said. “We can’t do that in schools. It’s impossible in schools. The next best alternative is masks. Masks work.”
Russell’s comments were met derision and an outright guffaw from members of the audience.
“Masks are our best tool for keeping this disease at bay. Let’s get our adults in this school system vaccinated,” Russell continued.
The health officer told the board he had assured Hill that teachers would be vaccinated prior to the start of the 2021-2022 school year, and his best guess for when vaccines would be available for educators is May.
Gov. Gianforte shifted educators to the third phase of the vaccination priority list in January. They were previously listed in the second phase of the state’s vaccine rollout under the previous administration.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued recommendations on opening schools, which involve mitigation strategies including “universal and correct use of masks,” as well as giving high priority to teachers in the early phases of vaccine distribution.
Several local teachers spoke to the board about their desire to continue teaching their students in person.
Kalispell Education Association President and sixth grade teacher Lynn Ogden-Ryder shared the results of a survey that she sent out to district teachers. Of the 281 teachers in School District 5 who submitted responses by 4 p.m. on Wednesday, 260, or 92%, were in favor of the continued mandate.
“I love your kids, I don’t want this to be forever,” said Edgerton third grade teacher Jessica Hensley. “I love your kids and I love their faces and I love their smiles. I paid a lot for my Sonicare toothbrush for my own smile. All I’m asking is to give us the opportunity to let us get vaccinated.”
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