Hamilton School Board trustees (on stage) and parents debated mask mandates and safety protocols for three hours on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021. Credit: Alex Sakariassen / MTFP

HAMILTON — Roughly a quarter of the 50 or so people gathered in the Hamilton High School Performing Arts Center Tuesday night wore face masks. Snickers and muttered rejoinders rose from the crowd as parents, grandparents and teachers stepped to the microphone to offer the district’s board of trustees their thoughts on a mandatory indoor masking policy for K-5 students outside their assigned classrooms. Board Chair Patrick Hanley tried to maintain an atmosphere of civility, quelling shouts and cheers with a raised hand, but the board’s proposed approach to COVID-19 this fall has stirred passions in the Bitterroot Valley community that aren’t easily quieted.

The masking proposal was put forth Tuesday by Hamilton Public Schools Superintendent Tom Korst as part of a lengthy reopening plan designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while allowing students to return to as normal a school year as possible. The plan also calls for continued social distancing wherever possible, regular cleaning and sanitizing inside school facilities, and contact tracing and isolation practices in consultation with county health officials and local hospitals. Korst said the reason for requiring masks for K-5 students is that vaccines have not yet been approved for children age 11 and under who populate those grades.

“Obviously there’s disagreement. I know that very well,” Korst told the crowd. “I’m just trying to find some compromise and reasonableness that protects our kids, that works well with this community and just gets the job done.”

“If somebody has a fear of anything — flying, swimming, driving a car, going [out] in public — you have a choice to take measures to protect yourself. Making other people fall in line to make you happy or [make] you feel safe is not how we live.”

Hamilton School parent Matt Lupton

For some parents, the policy doesn’t go far enough. Allison Cook, a mother of two students in the district, noted during public comment that her first grade son has suffered from respiratory difficulties  and repeated hospitalizations since birth. He doesn’t currently have the option to be inoculated, Cook said, and she worries that her seventh grade daughter’s attendance at school this fall alongside scores of unmasked classmates will put her son’s health at serious risk. The option for her daughter to voluntarily wear a mask in class does little to assuage her concern.

“Seventh graders aren’t nice all the time,” Cook said. “They’re not going to support one child wearing a mask because she cares about her brother. She’s going to try to do it but she’s not going to be able to all the time. It’s peer pressure. It sucks. It’s going to happen.”

Other parents felt the board’s attempt at compromise went too far. Matt Lupton, the father of two Hamilton students including one in the age group required to mask, said the board’s responsibility is to the education, well-being and development of children. He countered that the negative social and developmental impacts of masking on children far outweigh the “minimal risk” of the virus. The issue, Lupton said, is choice, and the proposed policy robs parents of that.

“If somebody has a fear of anything — flying, swimming, driving a car, going [out] in public — you have a choice to take measures to protect yourself,” Lupton said. “Making other people fall in line to make you happy or [make] you feel safe is not how we live.”

As the debate wore on over three hours, both Cook and Lupton returned to the microphone to add to their statements, the latter growing noticeably upset with the direction the evening was taking. After voting down an amendment to require masking at all times for K-6 students until the vaccine is made available to them, the board voted 4-3 to adopt Korst’s original proposal.

A DIFFERENT KIND OF FALL

Similar discussions have taken place across Montana in recent weeks as public school officials work to adopt strategies for the coming school year that reflect the shifting landscape of the pandemic. COVID-19 cases have spiked throughout the state in August, in some places rivaling counts reported last fall. The statewide vaccination rate is slowly inching toward 50%, even as the Delta variant has increased the transmissibility of the disease two-fold. According to medical experts at Yale Medicine and elsewhere, unvaccinated individuals are the most at risk of contracting the virus, a population that includes roughly 50 million children nationwide who are not yet eligible for inoculation. A recent letter from the American Academy of Pediatrics to the FDA urging vaccine authorization for those kids noted that in the final week of July, children made up nearly one-fifth of the reported COVID-19 cases in the country.

“I have no doubt we’re going to have some people that are passionate on all sides, and that’s not going to stop with a masking policy now.”

Missoula County Public Schools District COVID Recovery Coordinator Vinny Giammona

Still, the situation is not nearly as black and white in Montana as it seemed last fall. A vaccine is now readily available for older students, teachers and staff. Shortages of hand sanitizer, disinfectant and personal protective equipment appear to be a thing of the past. While a standing CDC order requiring masks on public transit continues to apply to all school busses, new laws enacted by the Montana Legislature this spring have raised legal questions about what policies local agencies and employers can adopt regarding masking, vaccination policies and quarantines. The atmosphere at the start of this school year is one of hope laced with confusion and fear.

One gray area that school boards and administrators are attempting to navigate is how to isolate close contacts of positive cases without running afoul of House Bill 702. The law, signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte on May 7, prohibits the withholding of goods, services, education or employment opportunities on the basis of vaccination status. New guidance from the CDC says close contacts who are fully vaccinated and asymptomatic don’t need to quarantine, but school officials have expressed concern that such a policy could be viewed as discriminatory under HB 702 and leave schools legally exposed.

“It looks as if districts will need to fully quarantine all students and staff who are close contacts, regardless of their vaccination status, which will increase the number of students who are unable to attend school in-person and teachers unable to educate in-person,” Luke Muszkiewicz, chair of the Helena Public Schools Board of Trustees, wrote Montana Free Press via email.

Montana School Boards Association Executive Director Lance Melton said questions about compliance with HB 702 are coming up more frequently in districts as the school year approaches, and could pose a significant challenge to creating a safe, effective learning environment for students and teachers. At Missoula County Public Schools, Health Services Supervisor Brooke Krininger said the district is discussing the issue with legal counsel and trying to determine what steps it can take to reduce the spread of the virus.

“Last year we operated on stay-at-home orders, which is a little different from a quarantine because it only applies to the school setting and school activities,” Krininger said. “We’re in the middle of working with the health department to see what that looks like this year.”

Krininger added that a change in the CDC’s definition of close contacts has made the quarantine question even more complex. The change excludes any student in a K-12 classroom who was within three to six feet of a positive case if both students were wearing masks correctly and consistently. The CDC has further advised that a three-foot separation between students is adequate for social distancing, and recommends that schools implement multiple layers of mitigation if distancing can’t be achieved, including testing, handwashing, ventilation and keeping students in smaller groups called cohorts.

Another major difference since the start of last fall is the access Montana schools now have to millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief funding. Some schools have chosen to invest that money in air purifiers, ventilation system upgrades and other pandemic-inspired infrastructure improvements. Missoula is directing a portion of its share to the hiring of 12 academic interventionists and 12 behavioral interventionists to assist students who were negatively impacted educationally or socially by the turbulence of the past year.

“I trust our school trustees to do the right thing for their communities. This is not something that the government should mandate.”

State Superintendent of public instruction Elsie Arntzen

“There’ll be two of those specialists that will be in each of our buildings at the K-8 level,” said MCPS District COVID Recovery Coordinator Vinny Giammona. “They will be there to support those specific needs and work with our classroom teachers, our building administrators, our social-emotional teams, and help them identify and work with students that may need support in specific areas.”

Though districts throughout Montana may be facing many of the same quandaries, Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen has opted against issuing any statewide guidance or recommendations. When it comes to masks and vaccines, she told MTFP this week, those are health-based discussions appropriately left to individual families. As for policies to combat COVID-19 in schools, Arntzen continues to prioritize local control, and does not foresee any development that would prompt her office to enact statewide requirements.

“I trust our school trustees to do the right thing for their communities,” Arntzen said. “This is not something that the government should mandate. Montana has always been a local control state, and there is nothing that I can see in the future, based on what we’ve learned in the past, to move us forward to any kind of a mandated closure or a mandated mitigation strategy.”

NO TWO DISTRICTS ALIKE

As of Wednesday, Missoula County reported 291 active COVID-19 cases, 39 of which were under the age of 20. It marked the second-highest spike for the county since late January. The highest, 293, was reported just five days earlier.

Those rising case numbers, coupled with the continued vulnerability of children below the vaccination age, were a primary driver in Missoula County Public Schools issuing a universal masking order in all district buildings for the first six weeks of the fall semester. According to Giammona, the policy falls squarely in line with recommendations from both the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Feedback from parents over the past few weeks has ranged from support for the policy to claims that masks do nothing to stop the spread of the disease, and Giammona doesn’t expect the debate to end anytime soon.

“I have no doubt we’re going to have some people that are passionate on all sides, and that’s not going to stop with a masking policy now,” he said. “We just have to make sure that we listen to our stakeholders and we hear any concerns that they have regardless of the situation or the topic and try to make sure that we have a response that’s consistent in every [school] building.”

Other large districts in Montana have taken a lighter approach. Last month, the Billings School Board voted to make masks optional for students this fall while granting district Superintendent Greg Upham the authority to enact a mandate at his discretion. Helena Public Schools have adopted a similar policy, while Great Falls developed a three-phase system designed to respond to community transmission levels with masking requirements or even a return to remote learning. The active case count in Billings on Wednesday was 443. In Great Falls it was 558.

In Wolf Point, however, mask mandates are likely to remain a distant memory at Frontier School, which serves 140 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Last year was a turbulent time for them, Superintendent Christine Eggar told MTFP, as it was for the entire community. Roosevelt County tallied more than 50 deaths attributed to COVID-19 in the early months of the pandemic. The situation improved enough for students to start school in person with masks last fall, Eggar said, but within weeks they were back to remote learning. Students returned to their classrooms by the end of October, and spent the rest of the academic year masked, distanced, eating in small groups and attending school only a few days a week.

Now, as another school year approaches, Roosevelt County is reporting only a dozen cases. Eggar said that as long as the COVID-19 situation doesn’t devolve, she’ll be sticking with less restrictive protocols including temperature checks at the door and frequent hand washing. She added that the return to a more normal school year was a desire voiced by a majority of the parents and community members surveyed by her board via Facebook. For Eggar, the ability to craft a localized strategy that reflects her school’s size and character is critical.

“What’s happening here is not what’s happening in Chicago or New York or Los Angeles, and it’s not what’s happening in Great Falls or Bozeman,” Eggar said. “We are very isolated. We have a lot of ground between us … and even when we live in town, you’re not looking at the kind of interactions that you would have in any of the state’s bigger cities or national bigger cities.”

“What’s happening here is not what’s happening in Chicago or New York or Los Angeles, and it’s not what’s happening in Great Falls or Bozeman.”

Frontier School Superintendent Christine Eggar

Amanda Curtis, president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, which represents public school teachers statewide, said she understands that case counts in smaller districts may still be low enough that schools don’t necessarily need to require masks to meet CDC guidelines. Teachers aren’t always in agreement on the need for masks, either, Curtis pointed out. Missoula’s local union has been largely unified in favor of masking, she said, but a poll of union members in Bozeman revealed a 50-50 split among teachers over whether masks make for a safer working environment.

Curtis believes giving superintendents the authority to issue mask orders if cases start to spike is a “reasonable policy.” She noted that in conservative states such as Florida and Texas where lawmakers have prohibited mask mandates, school officials are bucking the law in the interest of student and teacher safety. But Montana continues “treading water” in the pandemic, she said, with case counts rising and bogus theories running wild.

“It’s frustrating to be back in the same spot we were when we have a vaccine that’s available, we know masks work … we know social distancing and ventilation works,” Curtis said. “We have so much more information, we should be able to use that information to inform our decisions to get through this pandemic. And the disinformation is keeping us from it.”

A MATTER OF CHOICE

In Hamilton on Tuesday night, School Board Chair Patrick Hanley prefaced the board’s deliberation on its fall COVID-19 plan with a moment of candor. “This is not easy,” he said, summarizing a feeling doubtless shared by teachers and school officials across Montana. The board’s goal was to adopt a policy that would not only safeguard children, he continued, but ensure their education can proceed smoothly.

“I can almost guarantee that no matter what decision we come up with, some of you are not going to be happy,” Hanley said. “Some of you will be happy, some of you will not be happy. But please just note that we spent hours, hours and hours, digging through all the stuff you guys have sent us, the stuff that we’ve looked up, to try to come up with hopefully the best decision that we can come up with.”

Hanley’s prediction was right. Disappointment grew increasingly apparent on both sides of the debate. But as the public comment demonstrated, the face mask question has become a totem of a larger issue: parental choice. Hamilton parent Jeannine Morrison told MTFP she was frustrated by the board’s final decision, even though her children fall outside the age range required to wear masks.

“I feel like people are making decisions on my behalf as to what they think is best for my kid, not what I think is best for my kid,” Morrison said. “And that’s all across the board. That’s everybody. We feel like everybody else is making decisions that greatly impact our lives and we have no say in it.”

Attendee Tanya Ochoa, too, felt like she’d been robbed of a choice. It’s her responsibility, she told the board, to protect her tenth grade son. How can she do that, she asked, when his fellow high school students are free to spread the virus absent a mask mandate for all grades.

“I am unable to choose to put my kid in a school where he’ll be protected,” she said.

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Staff reporter Alex Sakariassen covers the education beat and the state Legislature for Montana Free Press. Alex spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics, and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, he splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact Alex by email at asakariassen@montanafreepress.org.