Board of Health Declined to Address Proposed Countywide School Mask Mandate

Health Officer Joe Russell authored directive requiring masks in Flathead County schools on Feb. 12; board did not publicly discuss directive after pushback from some members and county attorney’s office

By Andy Viano
The Flathead City-County Health Department building as pictured on Sept. 23, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Flathead County Health Officer Joe Russell wrote a directive requiring all schools to retain a mandatory mask requirement on the same day the statewide mandate was repealed, but Russell’s directive never came up for public discussion or a vote in part because the county attorney’s office argued the directive was unnecessary, according to emails obtained through an open records request.

Russell submitted a proposed directive to the nine-member Flathead City-County Board of Health via email on Feb. 12 at the urging of at least two local school superintendents, Kalispell’s Micah Hill and Bigfork’s Matt Jensen. In the directive, Russell wrote that unmasking teachers and students in school “may have deleterious and unintended consequences” and cautioned that schools without a mask mandate could lead to a return to remote learning and, in turn, “the disruption of business continuity in Flathead County.” But the proposed directive received minimal email support from board members and was never discussed in a public setting, including at a regularly scheduled board of health meeting less than a week later.

Two days before Russell sent out his proposed directive, on Feb. 10, Gov. Greg Gianforte announced he would be rescinding a statewide mask mandate effective Feb. 12. That immediately sent school administrators scrambling, and the Northwest Montana Association of School Superintendents (NWMASS) met on Feb. 11. That group unanimously approved of keeping mask requirements in place in their districts, sharing the decision with their respective school communities that evening. Russell consulted with NWMASS on that decision and emailed the board of health in the late evening on Feb. 11 to express his position.

“The timing of Gov. Gianforte’s lifting of the mask use policy is very concerning to me,” Russell wrote. “Although I have no objection to lifting the order for retail establishments, I feel we are not ready to lift the restrictions on other operations. My concerns lie to [sic] two areas in our community: schools and healthcare.”

Russell goes on to express dismay at Gianforte’s decision to move teachers from Tier 1B to Tier 1C, delaying their access to the COVID-19 vaccine until later this spring, a position he had previously stated publicly. He also warned that removing the school mask mandate could lead to “a widespread loss of educators to disease or quarantine measures,” and outlined the ripple effect that could have on in-person learning and the community at large.

The following morning, Feb. 12, Russell sent his directive requiring masks in schools to the board of health, and within a couple hours pushback had begun. At least one member suggested that the directive be watered down to a “recommendation” and several others shared some level of concern. Not every board member responded to the proposal via email, but of those who did, only two — Dr. Peter Heyboer and former chair Bill Burg — offered unequivocal support for the measure.

By noon on Feb. 12, Russell wrote to Hill, the Kalispell Public Schools superintendent, to tell him the proposed directive was as good as dead, at which time he made reference to the Flathead County Attorney’s Office’s opposition to the measure.

David Randall, a deputy county attorney who presented the office’s position in email exchanges, argued that the board of health “does not need to involve itself with the affairs of Flathead County schools.” Based on Gianforte’s Feb. 12 directive, school boards have the authority to impose mandatory masking, and Randall suggested that school districts were only seeking a directive from the county “to be shielded” from potential blowback. Randall also warned that if the board of health passed Russell’s proposed directive, it would only be exposing itself — and the county — to potential lawsuits that could be filed over mask policies.

To that end, Heyboer countered, “Randall’s opinion is limited based on his concern for litigation, which is his job as an attorney, not for determining what is right or wrong for public health.”

A second board of health member, Jessica Malberg-Fiftal, questioned Randall.

“Is it your official position that the Flathead City-County Board of Health should not issue a Flathead County mask-related directive, a directive that was specifically requested by school administration to help support our local schools, a directive that aims to help ensure the school’s safe operation and thereby continue to allow our working parents to function as they have been because there is a chance the board of health could possibly be involved in a lawsuit(?)” she wrote.

“I’ll confirm it is my position that the board of health should not issue a mask directive,” Randall responded. “The schools have authority to, and appear to be acting to adopt their own mask policies without the health board. Thus, a directive from the health board is an unnecessary risk.”

In the days after Russell’s directive was first proposed and shot down, at least one Flathead County district did rescind its mask requirement. In Bigfork, the board of trustees voted 4-3 on Feb. 17 to make masking optional, a policy that will go into effect on March 15. In the aftermath of that decision, some of the trustees who voted to retain mandatory masking and the district’s superintendent felt abandoned by the board of health.

“The (county board of health) exists to make public health decisions,” Jensen, Bigfork’s superintendent, said. “They abdicated that responsibility and then this started to play out.”

In an interview with the Beacon last week, Russell offered his perspective on why the directive he proposed and supported did not gain much traction.

“I’m the lead public health official in Flathead County, but I still answer to a board,” he said. “I did everything I could to get a directive in place. I did what I could.”

Russell also acknowledged that he should have added a discussion over school masking to the board’s agenda at the Feb. 18 meeting, which would have offered board members a chance to publicly address their position and likely would have offered Randall or another representative of the county attorney’s office an opportunity to answer questions. It also could have led to a vote on the matter.

“I probably shouldn’t have put us in a precarious position of deliberating on an email, but I did,” Russell said. “It didn’t change anything, but I probably should have put it on the agenda for deliberation in the meeting.”

The latest dustup on the board of health comes after more than a year of public controversy that began in December 2019 when the Flathead County Commissioners replaced two longtime board members — Drs. David Myerowtiz and Wayne Miller — with Ardis Larsen and controversial anti-vaccine and anti-mask advocate Dr. Annie Bukacek, a decision Myerowitz, who was then the board’s chair, described as “unconscionable.”

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the board of health has had to replace two health officers — Hillary Hanson and her interim successor, Tamalee St. James Robinson — and its meetings have been highly contentious, particularly when any COVID-19 mitigation measures have been discussed. The board has consistently voted against issuing any public safety directives, with Larsen and Bukacek among the group that has opposed each proposal.

Russell has decades of experience with the Flathead City-County Health Department, including a lengthy run as the health officer before he retired in 2017. Since returning to the job in December in an effort to stabilize the department, he has regularly tried to keep the board’s disputes to a minimum in an effort to restore confidence in public health.

“We’re working back into having a pretty credible public health system and I don’t think anyone was ready to see it torn apart again,” Russell said. “I think everyone’s sick and tired of that, and just didn’t want to polarize this community. I think there are many reasons the board didn’t want to go along with this and I think that’s one of them.”

Flathead County has no COVID-19 mitigation measures in place, although the city of Whitefish passed a mask mandate that went into effect last month. State government offices and several city and county departments are also requiring visitors to wear masks.

Eighty-one county residents have died as a result of the virus and more than 11,000 have been infected. The health department is holding vaccination clinics every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and as of March 2, more than 6,000 county residents were fully immunized.

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