by Nathan Boddy
The Hamilton School Board continues to deal with pressure from all sides as the Covid-19 virus infects more people in Ravalli County. Prior to the start of fall classes, the board approved a plan for reopening school in light of the highly contagious virus, choosing to require masking only for students K-5th grade in particular settings. That plan put the District in stark contrast to all other school districts in the Bitterroot Valley, none of which require any masking, regardless of age. While most school districts in the county seem to be echoing the sentiments of Governor Greg Gianforte, who has advocated control of the pandemic through “personal responsibility,” the Hamilton School District has tried to straddle a somewhat unwieldy divide. Now, as cases of Covid in the valley and the incidents of childhood infection are on the rise, the district has assembled a Covid Response Committee, comprised of school administrators and with the assistance of area medical professionals.
Discussions about the district’s responsibility in the face of increasing cases of Covid were taken up at the board’s regular meeting on Tuesday, September 7th. On that evening, members of the public once again took to the microphone to express their preferences as to masking. School Superintendent Tom Korst noted that the district is in a very difficult position, but also stated that, in his opinion, their current course of action seemed worthy of continuing. He added that classes had only just begun, and that he, “can’t see a reason to change it just yet. I’m recommending that we stay the course.”
Korst’s position did not fully satisfy various members of the public, like Amy Elliott, whose vociferous opposition to any masking had been made clear at previous board meetings. Said Elliott on Tuesday, “Can you please tell me, where in the Montana Code that it reflects that the school board has the authority to make rules regarding our children’s health?” Elliott pointed to an emergency rule by Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) that encourages schools to consider public input when requiring masks. Superintendent Korst replied, “I think, given a pandemic, and making reasonable adjustments, a school board does have that right.”
Elliott expressed concern that the district would be opening itself to lawsuits, but her opinion has already been disputed by multiple school districts in the state, including districts in Missoula, Great Falls, Billings and Bozeman, as well as the Montana Nurses Association, who says the DPHHS rule fails to meet the criteria of an emergency and has no legal mandate. Specifically, they cite the absence of the terms, ‘must’ or ‘shall,’ and ultimately state that Gianforte’s team depended on “junk science” when it issued the rule. While Korst’s response to Elliott was far more reserved, she seemed displeased with it nonetheless and indicated that she would be running for the school board herself.
Other members of the public were dissatisfied, feeling that the district is not doing enough to assure the health of kids, such as Marisa Neyenhuis, who said, “Nobody should just send their kids to school and expect them to get sick.” This sentiment was echoed numerous times, possibly giving rise to the retort by Tyson Burrows, who argued the opposite. “Kids go to school, kids get sick, that’s how it works. It worked before Covid, it’s going to be that way after Covid,” said Burrows. He added, “Kids are going to go to school, and get sick. There’s no stopping it. If you don’t want your kid to get sick, don’t send them to school. It’s that simple.”
Nonetheless, Hamilton School District is certainly seeing nothing ‘simple’ about the increased spread of a virus that has killed more than 650,000 Americans and is once again on the increase. On Friday, September 10th, the district’s Covid Response Committee, comprised of Superintendent Korst and school administrators, met with representatives of Ravalli County Public Health, who confirmed that cases of Covid-19 infections in Ravalli County are on the rise. “We’re increasing on a rapid up-slope,” said Ravalli County Health Officer, Dr. Carol Calderwood. “We’re not seeing any leveling.”
School administrators and Superintendent Korst heard the expertise of Dr. Calderwood and County Public Health Director, Tiffany Webber, as it applies to incubation period, social distancing, and the changed landscape for tracking Covid cases. Specifically discussed was the fact that, since the adoption of new state laws in 2021 limiting the authority of local health officials, it may be nearly impossible to accurately notify students if they’ve been exposed to the virus, unless the parents or infected students themselves offer the information to schools. “We don’t have the legal authority,” said Calderwood. “We can only make recommendations.”
The Covid Response Committee meeting came less than one week after the end of the Ravalli County Fair, an event during which masks and social distancing were weak to non-existent. Webber wished to remind members of the committee that, “If you’re unvaccinated, quarantine is still recommended for 14 days (following exposure) because that’s the incubation period. That’s the science.” It could be that, inherent in that statement is the hope that school officials not end up trying to control a viral outbreak with few-to-no tools for doing so.
Each of the school administrators took turns expressing their concerns about any possible increase in mask mandates. Ryan Wells, Principal at Hamilton High, said that no one needed to convince him about the value of wearing masks. However, he added that he has concerns about enforcement. “Without an authority to enforce it from outside the district, it would be difficult,” he said.
Other administrators echoed the sentiment about the logistical difficulties of requiring increased masking, as well as the impact it has upon the emotional and educational well-being of the students. All agreed that measures should be taken, but stopped short of advocating for increased usage of masks in particular. Further questions were put to the Public Health officials, specifically about rates of Covid in Ravalli County and hospitalization rates. These questions seem to hint at concern for the Bitterroot medical community, as places like Kootenai Health in Coeur d’Alene has begun to ration care as it becomes overwhelmed with Covid cases. Dr. Calderwood replied that her office alone is seeing “about 10 positives a day.” As far as hospitalization rates, both state and national statistics indicate that about one in 10 positive cases end up in need of some hospital care, a rate nearly double that of last year. “We’re not in containment,” said Calderwood. “We’re in a different place in the outbreak. We’re in mitigation. We’re just doing our best to keep the hospital not overwhelmed.”
The Committee meeting closed by agreeing to watch the situation and meet more often. Ericka Dowd, Principal at Daly Elementary, closed with an important observation. “What we want when this is over is also really important, and so being cognizant that we’re a community that loves each other and this is a really great place to be.” She also added, “This isn’t anyone’s finest hour, but this is important.”