BIGFORK — The Swan River School Board had just two hours on Monday afternoon to debate one of the most contentious issues of the day before having to clear out of the gym for the school’s 6 p.m. basketball practice. There were three items on the agenda, and the first two, having to do with school finances and committee appointments, were handled with little interest from the 50 or so people sitting in the bleachers. 

“Any public comment on this? No? Too boring?” Board Chair Luke Adamson asked the crowd. “The motion passes.”

Then came the agenda item everyone had been waiting for: “C: Consideration of lifting masking requirements.”

Since Gov. Greg Gianforte rescinded the state-wide mask mandate a month ago, school districts across Montana have come under pressure to figure out whether to continue requiring staff and students to wear face coverings. That pressure is leading to some contentious school board meetings, including in the Flathead Valley. 

On Feb. 17, the Bigfork School District Board of Trustees voted to rescind its mask mandate, despite recommendations by the superintendent, the school district nurse and all three of the district’s principals to keep it in place. Afterward, at least one staff member resigned in protest, and three weeks later the board of trustees is now reconsidering its decision after a meeting with the teachers’ union.

A week after that, on Feb. 24, the Kalispell Public Schools board meeting dragged on for three hours as the district considered its own mandate. At the meeting, students and teachers who spoke about their fear of going to school without a mask were jeered and laughed at. The board ultimately voted unanimously to keep the mandate in place. But the mask debate continues, and a group of students planned to stage a Tuesday walk-out at Kalispell’s two high schools to protest the decision. The debate has also flared up in Yellowstone, Ravalli and Lincoln counties.

“It’s been challenging since the get-go, but the governor’s decision to roll back the mask mandate really reignited [the debate],” Kalispell Superintendent Micah Hill said.

Health Officer Joe Russell — who came out of retirement three months ago to lead Flathead County’s beleaguered health department — said keeping students and teachers masked is one of the best ways to slow the spread of the virus. 

“I think schools are probably the riskiest place for us to not use masks,” he said. “[Maintaining these mandates] is the best thing we can do right now, because the numbers are going in the right direction, and we can’t just give up on the practices that got us to this point.”

Russell had hoped last month to pass a directive requiring all schools in Flathead County to maintain the mask mandate, but according to the Flathead Beacon he was shot down by both the health board and the county attorney’s office. 

At a meeting of the Swan River School Board March 8, parents expressed almost unanimous support for rescinding the district’s mask mandate. Credit: Justin Franz / MTFP

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that masks be used at schools whenever social distancing measures are difficult to maintain, and the state still recommends that schools follow federal guidelines. Russell said there’s no question that masks are an effective way to slow the spread of viruses, and pointed to the fact that as of last week there had been no positive cases of the flu in the entire state. This winter, there have been only about 1,500 known cases of the flu nationwide, according to the CDC (During a normal winter, the United States will usually have millions of cases, but social distancing and masks appear to have smothered the spread it this year). 

Prior to Monday’s school board meeting at Swan River School in Bigfork, a school survey found that most parents and students wanted to roll back the mask mandate. Knowing there was potential for heated debate, Board Chair Adamson asked attendees to be respectful of each other before public comment began: “I ask that you behave at least as well as your children do,” he said.

Once Adamson opened the meeting to public comment, about a dozen parents took the microphone to speak. Nearly all supported rolling back the mandate. 

“I want my child to see her teacher’s face again.”

“I’m against the masks because I think people are already being safe and herd immunity is a thing.”

“I’m just going to say it: Masks don’t work.”

“A lot of kids are wearing the masks like I’m wearing it right now, around my neck, so it’s sort of useless.”

“We’re not meant to live like this. We’re meant to be free.”

Every time someone spoke in favor of repealing the mask mandate, the crowd applauded.

Only one person, Tricia Youngbull of Somers, spoke in favor of keeping the mandate. Youngbull said she enrolled her two children at Swan River last fall because the private school they had attended in Kalispell last year was not going to enforce the use of masks. 

“If we can just stick it out for three more months wearing masks and that can save even one more life, then I think it’s worth it,” she said.

Principal Marc Bunker said he wanted to see the mask mandate removed as soon as possible because he believed it was negatively impacting students. He was, however, worried about removing it before the school’s teachers had a chance to get vaccinated, which was complicated by Gianforte’s decision in January to push teachers further back in the vaccine line. But that changed last week when President Joe Biden issued a directive to vaccinate teachers nationwide. Bunker said several teachers at the school are trying to get appointments for the shot. 

After Bunker and the board had their say, the trustees passed a measure that tried to split the difference: Effective March 9, teachers can decide whether or not the students in their classrooms will have to wear masks for one month. After that it will be up to individual students. Board members said they hope that will give teachers time to get vaccinated. 

Board member Dan Elwell said he wants to get rid of masks altogether, and believes it’s safe to do so. But more than anything, he said, he’s frustrated that the board was even having to talk about the issue. 

“This should be a state or federal decision. A school board shouldn’t be dealing with this,” he said. “Everyone up top is kicking these decisions down to us.” 

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Justin Franz is a freelance writer, photographer and editor based in Whitefish. Originally from Maine, he is a graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism and worked for the Flathead Beacon for nine years. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Seattle Times and New York Times. Find him at justinfranz.com or follow him on Twitter.