As classes get underway this week and next, Montana school and county health officials are grappling with how a new state law that bans vaccine discrimination should apply to quarantine orders for students and staffers exposed to COVID-19.
It’s the latest fallout from the law that says businesses and governmental entities can’t treat people differently based on vaccination status. The law makes Montana the only state that prohibits both public and private employers — including hospitals — from requiring workers to get vaccinated against COVID.
Some state and county officials also interpret the law to mean that unvaccinated people can’t be ordered to quarantine over a COVID exposure unless vaccinated people are, too. That interpretation goes against the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations for only unvaccinated people to quarantine in the event of a COVID exposure.
The state law worries school officials who had planned to lean on the CDC guidelines to keep closures and disruptions to a minimum this fall after last school year’s fluctuating in-person, remote and hybrid classes.
Micah Hill, superintendent of Kalispell Public Schools, said he received guidance from Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office that confirmed the law means quarantine protocols must be the same for the vaccinated and unvaccinated alike.
Hill described that interpretation as a “game changer” for schools as the highly transmissible delta variant of the virus races through the state. Kalispell’s Flathead County has among the highest number of active COVID cases with just 41% of the eligible population fully vaccinated. Only 1 in 4 children eligible for a COVID vaccine are vaccinated, according to county health officials. Hill estimates about two-thirds of his staff are vaccinated.
“If everybody is getting quarantined with a more contagious variant, you could see a lot of people out of school, staff and students, and [that] really threatens the ability of schools to stay open,” Hill said.
As a result of the law, some Montana county health and school officials have decided to drop quarantine orders. Instead, they are making quarantining an option for exposed students.
But at least one county has decided to defy the law. The Missoula City-County Board of Health unanimously voted this week for a policy requiring the unvaccinated to quarantine, but not the vaccinated. The board held the vote after being advised by a representative from the county attorney’s office that the policy could lead to a lawsuit.
The stance by Missoula health officials is the latest in a string of defiant acts by schools and local governments against state laws and policies that ban COVID-prevention measures. In Florida, for example, a handful of counties have said they will require students to wear masks despite Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ban on mask mandates.
In Texas, some school districts have defied a similar executive order by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, while one county has sued the governor to overturn the order.
Anna Conley, Missoula’s chief civil deputy county attorney, said that although she can’t promise the county will be successful in court, the county might have a good argument to overturn the state law if it winds up being litigated. The law may conflict with other state health laws that require health boards and health officers to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, she said.
Montana legislators passed House Bill 702 this spring amid a backlash against COVID-prevention protocols such as a mask mandate under former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, and after a Great Falls hospital announced plans to require its employees to get vaccinated against COVID.
“Your health care decisions are private; they are protected by the Constitution of the state of Montana,” said bill sponsor state Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, during the legislative session. “Your privacy is protected, and your religious rights are protected.”
Brooke Stroyke, a spokesperson for Gianforte, said it’s up to county officials to interpret how HB 702 affects quarantine orders in schools. However, an adviser in the governor’s office has instructed districts that the law presents an all-or-none option for county health departments when it comes to quarantine orders.
“HB 702 would allow for quarantine protocols as long as they are applied to everyone equally and are not based on COVID vaccination status,” Gianforte education and workforce policy adviser Dylan Klapmeier wrote in an email.
Lance Melton, CEO of the Montana School Boards Association, said that interpretation erases the advantage vaccines could provide in schools, where vaccinated teachers and students 12 and older would not have to quarantine following an exposure under CDC guidance.
Aside from Missoula, many county health departments are still deciding what to do. Gallatin and Lewis and Clark counties both say they will drop quarantine orders, making it optional for people to follow CDC guidance.
Flathead County is leaning toward the same approach. Flathead County Health Officer Joe Russell said that would allow vaccinated students, teachers and county residents to return to school and work as long as they aren’t showing COVID symptoms. Russell said the county can still order COVID-positive people to isolate.
“I don’t think it’s fair to punish someone that’s fully vaccinated and tell them that they have to … stay home for eight to 10 days. How fair is that?” Russell said.
That means relying on unvaccinated people to do the right thing and stay home after they’ve been identified as a close contact.
The prospect terrifies Rebecca Miller, who has two children in the Bigfork School District in Flathead County, where masks won’t be required in schools. Miller doesn’t think parents who are desperate to keep their kids in school so they can keep working will follow the Flathead City-County Health Department’s advice.
“Yeah, I think they’re going to send them to school,” she said.
This story is part of a partnership that includes Montana Public Radio, NPR and KHN.
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