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The COVID-19 pandemic continues to complicate the fall semester for K-12 public schools and college campuses across Montana. Elementary and high schools in numerous cities and towns have temporarily switched to remote learning in response to outbreaks among students and staff, and Montana State University abruptly pivoted to requiring face masks in classrooms on the third day of the fall term.

Concerns about the ongoing impacts of the pandemic on education spilled over into the Montana Board of Regents’ meeting in Butte Wednesday, with student and faculty representatives from the Montana University System urging the board to take stronger action. Half a dozen members of the Associated Students of the University of Montana individually called on the board to mandate COVID-19 vaccination for all students, staff and faculty on the UM campus, a request ASUM formalized in a resolution last week. Student senators also expressed support for the implementation of stronger mask requirements on state campuses while transmission rates remain high.

Emma Kiefer, a graduate student and ASUM senator, told the regents in person that “this is quite literally a matter of life and death,” and proposed that in the absence of a vaccine mandate, the regents at least require regular COVID-19 testing for students.

“As regents, you all inherently uphold a promise, a promise to students but also to their parents and family members, and you are the ones with the power here,” Kiefer said. “I am asking you for your help.”

The position taken by Kiefer and fellow ASUM senators was echoed by Joy Honea, president of the Faculty Association of MSU-Billings and a member of the Montana University System Faculty Association Representatives (MUSFAR). Honea read from a statement on behalf of MUSFAR thanking the regents for their earlier actions in combatting the pandemic but expressing concern that campuses now lack the tools they had last year to protect their communities. The statement asked the regents to reconsider their position on vaccine and indoor mask mandates within the university system in light of rising case counts statewide.

“We understand that it may take some time to determine the viability of a vaccination requirement and ask that in the interim, the MUS enact a face-covering requirement on all campuses in the system in all indoor spaces,” Honea said after reading the statement. “This action would provide support to administrators on individual campuses navigating the differing views among their constituents in their own communities, and it would ease the burden on individual faculty and staff in their efforts to encourage mask compliance in instructional spaces.” 

The statement from MUSFAR also noted that since the COVID-19 vaccine received full FDA approval on Aug. 23, campuses across the country have increasingly mandated its use among students and staff. The Chronicle of Higher Education, a national college news outlet, is keeping a running tally of colleges and universities that have enacted vaccine mandates. The current figure as of Sept. 16 is 1,032 campuses, none of which are in Montana. The digital magazine University Business has also published a list of campuses with mask mandates showing that colleges and universities in 47 states including Wyoming, Idaho and North Dakota have implemented such requirements. Carroll College in Helena is on that list.

“As regents, you all inherently uphold a promise, a promise to students but also to their parents and family members, and you are the ones with the power here. I am asking you for your help.”

Emma Kiefer, University of Montana student senator

At the start of the regents’ Wednesday meeting, Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian acknowledged that Montana campuses have to remain “vigilant” about COVID-19, adding that “we aren’t out of this thing.” He said higher education officials are encouraging people to get vaccinated and to wear masks, and that the university system’s strategy for continuing to offer an in-person learning experience during the pandemic will be “a team approach.” Christian made no mention of the recent requests by ASUM and MUSFAR, nor did he speak to the possibility of vaccine or mask requirements. All attendees were wearing face coverings.

“We can elevate ourselves in the [Montana University System] above the political fray of all this and do what is right,” Christian said. “We can continue with that high, high priority of an in-person experience for all our students across the MUS, knowing that our top priority will remain the safety of our students and our faculty and staff.”

State Superintendent of Public Education Elsie Arntzen was present at the meeting and spoke to the challenges facing K-12 education in Montana. School doors have been opening, she said, “and now doors are closing.” Arntzen attributed the shifting landscape to the Delta variant, which she noted is affecting communities across the state in different ways. Arntzen said her office is “asking our school leaders in our 825 mini campuses across our state to use multiple mitigation strategies that fit their community, that fit their children.” She did not mention face masks or vaccination specifically.

The regents took no action Wednesday in response to the public comments.

Kirk Miller, executive director of the School Administrators of Montana, addressed the recent challenges faced by K-12 schools in public comment before the Board of Public Education Thursday. School staff were excited about the return to full in-person instruction at the start of fall, Miller said. But in subsequent weeks, he continued, an “angry mob mentality” has emerged in some communities over the response by their districts to the pandemic, resulting in “chilling effects that even involved the safety of some of the administrators.” Miller urged the Board of Public Education to lend its support to those administrators, though he did not specify what form that support should take.

“I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with administrators over the last four weeks that didn’t sign up for having their life threatened, did not sign up for trying to do the right thing to protect the health of kids … and protect a community’s well-being by keeping the school open,” Miller said. “That just wasn’t necessarily in the job description. We do not want these [administrators] to go away as a result of our behavior.”

“I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with administrators over the last four weeks that didn’t sign up for having their life threatened, did not sign up for trying to do the right thing to protect the health of kids … and protect a community’s well-being by keeping the school open. That just wasn’t necessarily in the job description. We do not want these [administrators] to go away as a result of our behavior.”

Kirk Miller, executive director of the School Administrators of Montana

COVID-19 also drove a portion of the discussion Wednesday at the Montana Legislature’s Education Interim Budget Committee in Helena, where representatives from the Office of Public Instruction offered lawmakers an update on federal pandemic relief funding. Sept. 1 marked the deadline for public schools to submit budget applications outlining how they intend to spend their share of the second and third rounds of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) money. 

ESSER Program Manager Jeff Kirksey informed the committee that OPI has received 235 applications for ESSER II funding and roughly 300 for funding from ESSER III. Based on his initial review, Kirksey said, one of the primary spending priorities identified by public schools is staffing, particularly for teachers and paraprofessionals. In some cases, he added, the use of federal funds is aimed at retaining staff who might otherwise be terminated due to pandemic-induced declines in student enrollment. In others, schools are looking to bring on additional educators

“In some of those cases it’s actually hiring educators to keep student-to-teacher ratios low,” Kirksey said. “There’s good learning reasons for that and good evidence base for that, but that also helps schools achieve an appropriate level of social distancing in the classroom.”

Kirksey said the other major investment Montana school districts have identified is physical infrastructure, including roof replacements, improvements to school ventilation systems and the installation of modular spaces to better accommodate social distancing. He noted that the proposed spending patterns are in stark contrast to how schools invested their ESSER I funding last year. That money, Kirksey said, was primarily directed toward technology support staff and technological and supplies of personal protective equipment, which presented a more immediate need in the earlier phase of the pandemic. 

Montana public schools are slated to receive $153 million in direct funding from ESSER II and $344 million in direct funding from ESSER III. Asked by the committee if districts will be able to alter their budget plans for those funds at a later date, Kirksey confirmed that option does exist.

“One piece of good flexibility that’s actually built in to the grant management program is schools, as needs arise, they can amend their budgets and put in a new request,” Kirksey said. “As long as they’re aligned with an allowable use of the grants, we can approve that.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Emma Kiefer’s last name.

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...