Schools

Bigfork School Board Pushes Back Repeal of Mask Mandate

District will require students, staff to wear face coverings inside school buildings through at least April 9

By Andy Viano
Bigfork High School. Beacon file photo

The Bigfork School District Board of Trustees voted Wednesday night to extend the district’s mask mandate through April 9 after the teachers union expressed concerns over an earlier decision to lift the rule at the end of this week.

The trustees voted 6-0, with one abstention, to continue requiring masks in school buildings based on the recommendation of the board’s three-person bargaining committee, which had met with union leaders Monday night. The board previously voted 4-3 to end the district’s mask mandate effective at the end of the school day on March 12. That decision was made against the advice of almost every high-ranking district employee, including Superintendent Matt Jensen, and sparked at least one district staff member — Director of Technology Beau Wielkoszewski — to resign.

The Bigfork Area Education Association (BAEA) and Bigfork Unified Classified Employees (BUC) had been silent on the mask issue until Monday, when representatives sat down with the board’s bargaining committee to express their disappointment in the decision and concerns about their safety and that of students if masks became optional. BAEA President Rhonda White told the committee, which includes board president Paul Sandry, that repealing the mask mandate now was an unnecessary disruption in an already difficult year for students, and that “reactionary measures” that would need to be implemented once the mandate was lifted would have a negative impact on students.

In the weeks since the February board meeting when the first mask vote was held, district leadership has been discussing how to work around the rollback, including the anticipated loss of some in-person teachers with high-risk medical situations. The adjustments on the table have included returning to block scheduling or a hybrid in-person/remote model with older students, and separating elementary students into masked and unmasked classrooms.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and a chorus of public health officials have for months reiterated that mask-wearing is most effective if everyone wears them, since a face covering reduces the number of viral droplets expressed by the wearer. That means mixing masked and unmasked people presents an increased risk of infection to even those wearing masks in such an environment.

On Monday, after hearing from the union, Sandry offered to extend the mask mandate to April 9 in large part to allow the district’s teachers to be vaccinated. Educators were first given access to the COVID-19 vaccine earlier this month thanks to a federal program in partnership with local pharmacies. Teachers can search for available doses at vaccinefinder.org.

Sandry also did not explicitly rule out the possibility of re-engaging the board once again before April 9 but told the BAEA Monday that he would not support extending the mandate through the end of the school year. Bigfork’s next regularly scheduled school board meeting is April 14.

In an email statement to the Beacon, Jensen, the district superintendent, said the extension of the mask requirement “does not check all of the boxes for either side” but called it a “tolerable compromise.”

“The extension does go a long way in getting many of our staff and vulnerable community members to their immunization date,” Jensen wrote. “This is a divisive issue for many communities across the country; I am thankful the Bigfork trustees continue to work together to find common ground.”

After making their decision on masks at Wednesday’s meeting, the school trustees also approved a contract to hire Glacial Escape LLC, a local IT company owned by Beau and Holly Wielkoszewski, to provide remote technology services to the district. Beau had worked directly for the district as an employee but submitted a biting letter of resignation on Feb. 17, the same day the trustees announced the rollback of the mask mandate.

“The fact the school board and community places a higher value on ‘normalcy’ than my co-workers (including their family and children) and students with underlying health conditions is appalling,” he wrote. “I cannot in good conscience continue to be a public servant for a school community where the majority favor convenience at the detriment of others.”

The CDC recommends schools require masking for in-person learning in addition to other mitigation measures and, if possible, recommends vaccinating all in-school personnel. Gov. Greg Gianforte did not offer specific instruction to schools when he repealed the state’s indoor mask requirement on Feb. 12, instead leaving that decision to local school boards. Regarding schools, Gianforte’s directive asks districts to “make reasonable efforts to follow school guidelines and best practices recommended by the CDC and Montana Office of Public Instruction (OPI).” Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen said she was “pleased” when the statewide mask mandate was repealed and praised the decision to restore “local control” to elected school boards, but her office (OPI) has otherwise offered no direction on COVID-19 mitigation.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.