As one school member said repeatedly, “Everything is 50-50.” And so it seemed at the special meeting of the Stevensville Board of Trustees on February 17, when the school board tried to make a decision on whether to keep or rescind a masking requirement on school grounds. The meeting was held in person as well as via Zoom, with well over 100 people attending virtually.
Montana’s new governor, Greg Gianforte, lifted the previous governor’s mask directive on Friday, February 12, although he said he would continue to wear a mask. Local jurisdictions, such as school districts, have the authority to implement their own policies regarding COVID-19 regulations. However, the board was unable to come to a decision, as at least two votes related to the topic were split, 4-4. A final vote did pass, to continue the mask requirement while students, parents and staff members are surveyed to get their input, at which time the board will meet again to attempt a decision based on the survey results.
The discussion opened with comments from Dr. Bob Moore, school superintendent. He said that SB-65 which was passed by the legislature grants immunity to businesses from liability related to COVID-19, but schools were excluded. “I do have concerns,” said Moore. “The school could be challenged on either decision,” masks or no masks. He said he knows that everyone is passionate about this issue, but the least liability would be if the district continued with a mask mandate. “We need to keep the school open to in-person instruction.” Moore also pointed out that the governor said schools should follow CDC guidelines, which include mask wearing. Moore’s recommendation to the board was to continue with the mask mandate.
Board chair Cathi Cook supported Moore’s recommendation. “Our staff has done a great job in this unprecedented time,” said Cook. “We have a fiscal responsibility to the taxpayers. We have a moral responsibility to protect staff and students. And we have an educational responsibility to continue providing top rate education to students.” Having staff out sick or quarantined affects that, she said. She pointed out that Hamilton, Corvallis, Darby, Victor and Lone Rock school boards have all decided to continue to require masks, with Florence being the lone school to drop the mask mandate.
“We need to do this a little longer,” said Cook. “Cases are going down. Vaccinations are coming through. We should keep the mask mandate.”
Board member Sean Lenahan said that masks should be optional, with the choice up to individual families. He said the CDC has flip-flopped on this issue. “Objective data has proven out that the mask in not an effective prophylactic.” He said COVID-19 is real and he has had family members die from it, but, “we have an obligation to reflect the will of our community.”
Billy Donaldson, another board member, agreed with Lenahan that masks are not effective. He said he had had the virus and it wasn’t as bad as the flu. “We learn to live with it.”
Connie Johnson, school nurse, told the board that the district does not issue quarantine orders. The school only does the contact tracing and provides that info to the county health department, which has the authority to require quarantining. Johnson said that 6-foot social distancing is almost impossible in the school environment, but the staff does the best it can to social distance and cohort the kids. She said the number of quarantines has decreased dramatically. She said the problem with not having masks is that there will be more cases in the school. She said the health department has requested that masks continue at school and that vaccines may not be available until the end of the school year. “The best practice is to continue masking until further notice.”
Board member Sarah Armijo said, “The governor is giving us a choice. OPI is giving us a choice. The health department is giving us a choice. I don’t feel the school board should make medical decisions for anybody.”
Ben Meyer, another school board member, said that, regarding “the will of the community, having school five days a week is the will of the community. We should be doing everything we can to maintain that… The governor said we should follow CDC guidelines which is universal masking in schools.” He said the superintendent, the school nurses, the administrators, “all the people we’re paying to do the best thing for the school, that’s what they recommend. It’s pretty cut and dry.”
“If there’s a perception of us continuing to usurp families’ authority, that’s not going to end well for our district,” said Lenahan. “
During public comment, a number of people in the health care field spoke, all in favor of masking. Brittany Olney, a nurse and parent of a high-risk student, said that her daughter told her that having to “home school” during COVID was the worst thing that happened to her this year. “She’d rather wear a mask than stay home,” said Olney. She said vaccines for the teachers are coming soon. “This isn’t forever,” said Olney. “Keep masks for just awhile longer.”
Many of the commenters tried to make the case that teachers especially need to be protected from the virus because when they have to quarantine, or when they get sick, that causes a disruption in the education process. Teachers are in the Phase 1c vaccine group, which hasn’t been activated yet
“Masks can only help,” said Lee Starck, K-4 counselor, by allowing students to be in school and avoid loneliness, anxiety, depression, even suicide, that increases with distance learning. Starck said children’s emotional health can be linked to a healthy and safe attachment to a “safe adult,” and many of those attachments happen at school with staff members, another reason to keep kids in school.
Dr. Gabe Charbonneau and Dr. Angela Haugo both recommended continuing with masks. “As soon as we pretend it’s an individual choice, we take away the choice of someone else to be protected from a lethal, global pandemic virus that kills people at random,” said Charbonneau. “You’re playing roulette.”
Charbonneau noted that if a person is exposed to the virus two weeks or more after receiving the second dose of the vaccine, they don’t need to quarantine, which he said was a hopeful sign.
Plenty of non-medical people spoke had strong opinions about masking as well. “Never, ever has there been a vaccine for a virus,” said Terry Lackey [which is not true, as there are numerous vaccines for viruses, e.g. smallpox, chickenpox, mumps, measles, hepatitis, influenza and polio, to name a few]. “Children build their immune systems by getting sick… Let the kids choose, let their parents choose… Please release the kids from this mask prison…”
Autumn Morton, a parent and a substitute teacher at Stevensville, said that when she heard that masks were mandated last fall, she pulled her kids out. “This should be left up to the parents.”
Student Kelsey Painter, a senior, said she “should be able to choose for myself.”
Another student, junior James Gunterman, said that students haven’t been asked about this. “I’ve heard a lot of talk tonight about the students’ and community’s will. But students asked for a student survey and nothing came of it. We haven’t been properly represented.” Gunterman likened the mask requirement to the dress code and other rules, which the district makes for students’ safety. “Masks obviously help. I understand why it may be frustrating to wear a mask, but I don’t see where there’s any logic to not wearing a mask if we want to prevent our students, our teachers and our parents from being sick.” He asked the school board to take a survey of the entire student body to get their opinions on masking.
“The ultimate end here is to serve our students and community, teachers, staff, and administrators based on factual information,” said Lenahan. “I’m disturbed by comments that we should follow the science and defer to the medical professionals. I agree wholeheartedly that we should do that. How come we’re discounting the input from folks who were considered before last March to be the experts on epidemiology? Who becomes the expert and how do we determine where we get our information from? When will the number be low enough that we can stop mandating mask wearing? Our families are the best people to make these decisions. We still live in a free country.”
“If there was anything that you could do to prevent someone from getting sick or dying, wouldn’t you want to do that?” said Cook. “If the masks can help keep our kids in school, wouldn’t you want to do that for our students?”
After more than three hours of discussion and public comment, a motion was made to continue to require masks as recommended by the CDC and reevaluate on a monthly basis depending on vaccinations and case count. The motion failed on a tie, with Cathi Cook, Michelle Fauth, Kris McKoy and Ben Meyer voting in favor, and Sarah Armijo, Billy Donaldson, Nick Gerhard and Sean Lenahan voting no.
Because the motion failed, the school policy reverts to what is currently in place, which is a mask mandate that was implemented last fall by the superintendent, who was given that authority when the board passed Policy 8301 in October. That policy gave the superintendent the authority to implement any measures to safeguard the students and staff, including face masks.
But at least four board members wanted another try at asserting their authority on the issue, so a motion was made to make masks optional and continue as a board to revisit the policy as situations in the area change. Again, the vote resulted in a 4-4 split, this time with Armijo, Donaldson, Gerhard and Lenahan voting in favor, and Cook, Fauth, McKoy and Meyer voting against.
Sometime after midnight, the board voted to continue the mask requirement while a survey of the entire student body and their parents is conducted to find out their opinions on masks. The findings will be considered at a meeting this week. This time there was only one “no” vote, by Sarah Armijo.
Victoria Howell can be contacted at: [email protected] or 406-207-8793.