Mask Mandates Create Conflict at Billings Schools

Billings Public Schools Superintendent Greg Upham issued the mandate after an outbreak of COVID-19 within an extracurricular activity at Skyview High School

By Associated Press
Disposable face masks and a jug of hand sanitizer are positioned at the entrance to Kalispell Middle School on August 21, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

BILLINGS – A mask mandate to limit the spread of the coronavirus in Montana’s largest school district has resulted in pushback by teachers, their union, some parents and at least one state official.

Billings Public Schools Superintendent Greg Upham issued the mandate Saturday after an outbreak of COVID-19 within an extracurricular activity at Skyview High School, The Billings Gazette reported.

The mask mandate matches Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance for schools, in part because vaccines are not yet available for children under age 12.

Earlier this summer, Upham had announced that masks would be optional in Billings schools.

“Based on the reported COVID-19 infections in Yellowstone County, including the steadily rising number among school-aged children, the outbreak with our students, the fact our hospitals are at capacity, and that the delta variant is highly infectious, I have concluded it is in our best interest to reimplement masking in our schools,” Upham wrote.

The policy drew support from local health care agencies and the Billings Chamber of Commerce.

Under the policy, teachers who fail to wear masks or enforce the mask mandate would be considered insubordinate and be placed on five days of unpaid leave, with the option to return earlier if they agree to adhere to the masking policy, Upham said. Classes and some new student orientation activities started Monday for some grades. Three teachers were placed on unpaid leave for refusing to follow the policy.

Some students were also refused entry to schools for refusing to wear masks.

The Billings Education Association, a union representing teachers and staff, said it had an agreement with the school district saying masking was optional. The union’s board said it was going to “pursue the appropriate actions to ensure our members’ voices are heard,” although those actions were not specified.

The union has said it “has always encouraged members to mask.”

Protests against the mask mandate were held on in Billings on Sunday and again Tuesday.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, a Republican and a former elementary school teacher, was among hundreds of people at Tuesday’s protest. She reiterated her position against masking requirements in schools and said teachers had been turned into “compliance officers for a mandate that does not make sense.”

The CDC recommends everyone wear a mask in public indoor places, even if they are fully vaccinated, in areas of substantial or high transmission of COVID-19. Most Montana counties, including Yellowstone, are seeing high transmission rates, according to the CDC.

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