by Nathan Boddy
The Hamilton School Board met on Tuesday, August 17th for what they certainly knew would be a long evening. Topic number one for the trustees was the re-opening plan for the school district, specifically, whether or not masks would be required. Superintendent Tom Korst provided the trustees with a proposed action plan, bulleted into nearly a dozen categories of security measures for controlling the spread of the COVID-19 virus within schools. The first, and nearly only measure discussed by the public at Tuesday’s hearing, was “universal and correct wearing of masks.”
Korst’s proposal was essentially a hybrid plan, wherein only students kindergarten through 5th grade would have any mask requirement at all. These students would only be required to wear masks when in groups and locations other than their regular ‘cohorts,’ or small groups. The proposal also makes clear that, under an order by the CDC, students and staff being transported with buses will all be required to wear masks until further notice. The proposal also addressed physical distancing policies, contact tracing, diagnostic and testing for staff, among other measures, but the mask policy was the only measure which seemed to draw the ire of people on both sides of the issue.
Patrick Hanley, chair of the school board, expressed to those gathered that, “this is not easy,” and that the trustees had all spent a significant time considering how the school would re-open this fall. He added, “I can almost guarantee you that, no matter what decision we come up with, some of you will not be happy.” Despite that fact, he urged people to make their comments in a civil way and with respect. “That’s what we’re trying to teach the children,” he added.
While the public comment portion of the evening did unfold smoothly, emotions were clearly running high. Comments ranged from concern about dental health while wearing masks, to mind control and loss of IQ points from mask mandates. Said Richard Huls, of Hamilton, “We’re teaching our kids to be afraid.”
Amy Elliott added to that notion by suggesting that the community, “trust your body’s immune system to do what the good Lord has designed it to do. Trust in God to protect you.” While Ms. Elliott places her faith in God to protect her body, she cited Montana House Bill 435 to protect the school district from any litigation which could arise from corona-virus related lawsuits, and Senate Bill 501 as justification for why the school couldn’t legally enforce any mask mandate. Elliott, who spoke multiple times, justified her opinion using the phrase, “my body, my choice.”
While Hamilton School District 3 may be the only school district in the valley to use any mask mandate, it certainly isn’t the only district nation-wide dealing with uncertainty during the start of the school year. Wide-ranging points of view, coupled with easily available information and misinformation on the internet, have parents and students on edge. While the Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction, Elsie Arntzen, last May encouraged Montana school districts to rescind or allow to expire any face covering requirements, the Montana Medical Association held a press conference on August 19th sending the opposite message.
“Our message is based on researched facts and proved scientific data,” said MMA President, Pamela Cutler, adding, “Masking is a tried and true measure that protects the wearer and protects others too. We recommend universal masking for grades K-12. It worked for our schools last year, and it can keep our kids in school this year.”
Following more than two hours of public input at the Hamilton School District meeting, trustee Seth Gale Wyrick made a motion that seemed to directly address the many comments about ‘personal choice’ made by many of the speakers. His motion would have required masks for all students through grade 6. He stated that he would prefer to, “give the choice about masks (only) to any family that has also had a choice about vaccines.” Currently, only people over the age of 12 have the option to receive the vaccine. He asserted that people 11 years old and under shouldn’t be forced into an unsafe environment when they don’t have the option to protect themselves with the vaccine. “Mask choice cannot exist independent of vaccine choice,” said Gale Wyrick, adding that, “Those two choices go hand in hand, at least in my mind.”
Trustee Gale Wyrick’s motion failed, and the board ultimately did pass the proposal as written by Superintendent Korst, with the only amendment being to revisit the policy as needed. As cases are currently on the rise in both Ravalli County and Montana, with a total of 60 new cases reported to the Public Health Department on Thursday and Friday, that revisiting could be sooner than many people hope. Even prior to the vote, Korst mentioned that there was a likelihood that COVID cases were going to increase, adding, “there’s a likelihood that we’re going to be modifying and talking about this throughout the year. If I had to bet, I think that’s going to be the scenario.”